Unfair Exchange

Derek Des Anges is an emerging cross-genre gay/trans author working in London, and has previously been published by Vulture Bones Magazine, On The Premises Magazine, Calyx Press, Owl Hollow Press, Feral Cat Publishers, and New Smut Project; I have two upcoming pieces with ProleSCARYat and Dead Fish Books.


Malia T sat on bleached white coral sand and admired the clear waters lapping silently against her legs. It hadn’t taken many steps away from the more crowded end of the beach to free her from the hubbub of holiday making voices and the shrill shrieks of playing children: one of the benefits, as she saw it, of having lost most of her hearing to measles in her childhood.


The sun reflected off the warm sands and made golden patterns on the undersides of her deep brown legs, and the light danced with the motion of the water as shadows from the brim of her straw hat created tiger stripes on her arms. All in all, the Indian Ocean island was a far cry from Solihull and worth every penny of the money she probably shouldn’t have spent on it.


But sod it: it had been a hard year full of recriminations, surgery, and disowning. She needed a holiday.


The waves lapping around her thighs grew more urgent. The distant voices were replaced by distinct splashing, droplets hitting her on the arm as someone’s feet thumped through the shallow water and sent ripples vibrating through it, through the sand.


Malia looked up from her idle consideration of the naked horizon; and unease twisted in her stomach as the tourists—mostly sunburnt whites who’d turned the unenviable baked-lobster of precipitating melanomas and incautiously-applied suncream—poured out of the water in a horribly coordinated wave. Instinct older than words made her uneasy, rather than the urgent gesticulation of the chair-mounted lifeguard which got her to her feet.


She trotted away from the shallows and stood on scorching sand in feet she immediately wished weren’t bare, and looked back at the ocean. People were pointing now.


It took a while—she had to look for the wake, a break-less wave running contrary to the shallow ones which eventually rolled up onto the white shore—but she saw it: a pair of dark, curved fins cutting through the water with a grace and agility that she wouldn’t have expected from any kind of fish, and obviously a lot of power.


The woman nearest to Malia said something that looked like, “Can’t be a shark.”


Maybe, Malia thought, it was a dolphin. But the lifeguards on the beach would know what dolphins looked like. After all, it was their job.


The fin swept around the headland where the empty ex-Army lookout stood, alone on a promontory of volcanic rock, and disappeared out of sight. The wake it left vanished immediately too, but the lifeguard kept them out of the water for another half an hour just to be on the safe side, and Malia could see children complaining and sulking about it all over the beach.


~


Malia knew she must seem a little aloof to the other tourists, and a bit strange for coming on holiday by herself; the staff, she was pretty sure, had seen just about every kind of weirdness under the sun and accepted a deaf girl with a suspicious Adam’s apple as the lower end of strange if it even registered at all. It gave her some much-needed peace and quiet.


All that meant she spent the evening, as she had spent the three evenings since she arrived, sitting alone at one of the studiously ‘native-themed’ resort cafes and feeling something between embarrassed at the implications of a ‘native-themed’ anything, angry on behalf of the islanders, and blissfully relieved that no one was trying to hit on her in that moment.


It meant she could get lost in the condensation running down the side of her mock tail. It meant she could tip her head back to look at the stars without worrying too much that some handsy Brummie dimwit—because there was just no escape from the West Midlands even in the Indian Ocean, apparently—trying to butt in on her reverie. And it meant she was free to scroll through her Instagram feed, secure in the very smug knowledge that no matter how much fun it looked like anyone else was having, she was definitely winning at Good Times now.


Instead of doing any of those things, however, she was self-consciously applying antiseptic to a flipflop blister between her bloody toes, and thinking about the thing she’d seen at the beach.


Probably just a shark.


But the lifeguards had looked confused, she thought, when they let them back in the water. Something unknown. Not familiar enough to be dangerous.


She wasn’t sure she’d have let them all get back in the sea, but then—Malia looked over at the table on the opposite side of the pool, where a hen party were doing shots—it was probably more trouble than it was worth. She’d had days herself of angry clients who just wanted to cause trouble the second they were asked to hold on for two seconds, and these guys probably had hundreds of customers like that.


It really had been so much more graceful than anything she’d seen on TV.


~


The next morning the beach was even more packed, barring the probably-hungover hens. News had got around, and now people were waist-deep in the water trying to see if the “dolphin” was coming back. Malia had missed any announcement that it was just a dolphin, but then—she thought, a little bitterly—of course she would. No one at the resort seemed to have grasped what “I can’t hear you” actually meant.


The sky was once again an unbroken plain of cloudless blue from horizon to horizon. The old Army look-out on the headland stood out like a sore thumb, the young palm-trees planted to obscure it not yet big enough to do their job. Malia pulled down the brim of her hat to avoid making eye-contact with the sole member of the hen party who’d made it out of bed so far, and flip-flopped painfully down the coral sands towards the outcropping.


The headland was empty when she got there. There was no fence, but clearly anyone who wanted to get a selfie on the promontory had already done it, and the volcanic rock wasn’t fun for climbing or sunbathing on—as she soon discovered.


“Ow, fuck,” Malia complained, trying to keep her flip-flop on her foot and her foot on the increasingly jagged rocks. Below the tide-line, the rocks had been worn smooth and in places there was really gross, slimy seaweed hanging down, but where she was climbing was like walking barefoot on the pot-hole-ridden road of her home but with lumps.


Unfortunately, there was no one to blame but herself; Malia carried on wobbling her way across the rocks until the beach was half-hidden behind her.


Finally alone, she climbed down the last two lumps of rock below the look-out and squinted at the water. At this point it didn’t slope away into sparkling azure so much as it dropped out into deep blue and indigo with alarming speed.


She wondered if there was something down there to make it look that deep or if it really was such a different depth so close to the beach.


On the rock nearest the water, something glistened in the sun.


Despite the shade of her hat, Malia felt compelled to shield her eyes from the glare so she could get a better look: unfortunately, letting go of the rock behind her put her briefly off-balance, and she half-slithered, half-fell, bruising her arse and her thigh, over the rough rocks most of the way down to the water’s edge.


“Shit,” Malia said, getting her breath back. She examined her leg: it wasn’t bleeding, at least. Thank God she was out of sight of the beach so no one could see her making an idiot of herself.


At her new angle, the sun wasn’t shining directly into her eyes, and she could see that what she’d spotted glistening on the rock before wasn’t silver at all, but a kind of gold-green, or green-gold—Verdigris, probably. She’d never been able to connect the word with the colour properly in her head, and this thing seemed to be changing colour slightly as she looked at it anyway.


The colour wasn’t really the interesting part, anyway. That was more the shape of it, clinging to the side of a rock just above the water-line, occasionally splashed by the incoming waves.


It looked like a hand.


Malia squinted under the brim of her hat.


The sun played across the surface, and one of the fingers moved position. It was definitely a hand.


She tried to settle on the uncomfortable rock, to get her balance. It was probably someone snorkeling. Someone braver than her, obviously, or more foolhardy—she’d never go scooting out over the dark, deep waters off the end of the headland, but maybe they’d been forced onto a beach holiday by their family and had really wanted one of those nerve-wracking, thrill-seeking kind of excursions instead.


Someone snorkeling with gloves on, probably. To stop them from cutting their hands on the rocks or being jabbed by cone shells or anything else that Malia had read up on before she came, somehow filling the void where her mother’s fretting would have gone by doing it herself.


There was a fin shaped like a rounded triangle protruding from the water a couple of metres back from the hand on the rock.


Malia blinked.


The fin submerged without a splash, leaving sunlight dancing on an ocean surface that seemed almost like a disco ball: mirrored and impenetrable.


Do they know there’s a huge fish behind them? Malia thought, half-getting to her feet. She had no idea what she was supposed to do about it if they didn’t. She wasn’t exactly confident at swimming, she had no clue how to distract the big fish if she got into the water, and what if she just distracted the diver instead and they got killed because of her?


While Malia was still navigating what her therapist called “your internal whirlpool of bad thoughts”, there was a gentle splish: the hand vanished into the water.


Malia froze.


There was no sign of movement in the waters below.


Breathing hard, she scrambled down onto the rocks, succeeding in skinning her knee, but little else.


She reached the water’s edge with a skid that threatened to throw her into the deep ocean, and with a panicked flail Malia grabbed at the nearest rock, pulled herself completely off-balance, landed on her bum, and fired one of her flip-flops several metres into the ocean with a kick that would have impressed a ballerina.


“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Malia shouted, more in shock than in pain.


There wasn’t even any sign that there had been any diver there at all in the first place, and it was going to be a really uncomfortable walk back to the resort.


~


Back at the resort, when Malia had assured herself that she hadn’t actually sprained anything and that no one was actually missing, she went to the resort gym.


I’m not actually a clumsy idiot, she told herself, making a bee-line for the indoor climbing wall. I was just wearing the wrong shoes.


She’d just got back down again when a white guy with an obnoxious gold mariner chain necklace—which he probably thought was designer and which really clearly wasn’t—planted himself directly behind her. The first Malia knew about it was when he tapped her on the shoulder, just as her shoe hit the padded mats on the gym floor.


She stepped back into the climbing wall and turned at the same time, pressing one of the lowest of the foot-holds into the small of her back, and stared at him. They were exactly the same height: Malia’s eyebrows were on a level with his, but he didn’t seem to find that intimidating.


He said, very distinctly and with a smug, shit-eating smirk, “You know from the back you look just like a bloke, love?”


Oh god, how fucking original, Malia thought, subjecting his waxed hairline to laser-point scrutiny. He might be waxing it back now, but give it another three years at most and he’d be looking for hair plugs. She didn’t let the anger—no, not anger, not any more, just exhaustion—she didn’t let it show on her face. She just gave him a blank look, and pointed to her ear.


In the Deafest accent she had, Malia said, “Sorry, can’t hear you. Love.”


For a moment he looked like he was going to say something else, bouncing on the soles of his feet.


Is he going to hit me? Here? In the gym? Malia wondered.


But he just shouted, “SORRY, DIDN’T REALIZE,” and walked off laughing—leaving her to breathe so hard through her nose that she thought she was going to faint, or drown in the stomach acid that came flooding up her oesophagus at his mocking laugh.


~


The sun was low in the sky when Malia, finally in canvas trainers and prepared, took the land route round to the little promontory.


Technically she wasn’t supposed to be there—there was a gate, and a “no entry” sign, and another reading “danger, deep water”, but the gate wasn’t locked, and the path wasn’t blocked, and the fence had been broken up in so many places it was more like a series of teeth in the mouth of a crocodile than an actual fence.


She wasn’t really sure why she was going back, apart from maybe to reassure herself that no dead bodies had washed up on the shore in her absence, and maybe a little bit to prove—just to herself—that with the right shoes she wasn’t going to flop and flail around like someone’s drunk uncle at a wedding.


Malia adjusted her sunglasses. Without the hat to shade her eyes and with the different angle of light the headland looked more foreboding, but she climbed down more easily now too. The benefit, she thought, of proper shoes and not being dressed in a swimsuit.


Past the ruined look-out, the land dropped away suddenly, and with the night ready to blossom across the eastern horizon while the west prepared for one of those spectacular dinnertime sunsets that the Indian Ocean did so well, the deep dark waters below looked like a huge open mouth.


The hairs on the back of Malia’s neck—or where they’d been before she had electrolysis—stood up at the thought of how big an animal would have a mouth that size. Or maybe an eye.


She was about to turn around and leave, thoroughly spooked, when she spotted a bright red shape above the high-water mark on the seaward rocks.


Malia glanced back over her shoulder at the sun, which was making a bid for the far horizon with all the alacrity of a tired child being dragged away from an ice cream van, and back down at the red shape.


From where she was standing it looked like a shoe.


“Fuck it,” said Malia, and with a lot more caution than she’d displayed before, she climbed down the rocks.


It was way, way easier with trainers on, which she should have expected.


The closer she got the more it looked like a shoe. By the time she was two metres away she knew damn well it was a flip-flop and what’s more, it was her flip-flop.


“That was lucky,” Malia muttered, bending down to pick it up off the rocks. It was in a weird spot to have been left by the waves—there wasn’t much surf today, and the rock here was an overhang, a nerve-wracking direct drop into the deep blue waters below, the kind that caused nightmares. The lower reaches of it were slimed with seaweed, but where she stood was dry and speckled with little green plants; it didn’t seem likely the tide had left it here.


Malia peered over the edge of the rock at the deep waters. Maybe there’d been a water spout. One of those things she’d theoretically learnt about in geography where the water shot up between two rocks because of pressure or something.


The only thing she could see was the clear depths, the ragged rocks below the water, visible now that the sun had moved around, and—


—A pair of round eyes like huge marbles in a human-like face, noseless, with a smile of some sort that stretched all the way around the head, distorted by the water, gazing unblinkingly up at her.


Malia used several swear words she would have been embarrassed to report even in the confines of her own mind, jerked backwards, dropped her fucking flip-flop over the edge of the rock, and backed up as fast as she reasonably could.


“Oh no, no no, no thank you,” Malia added, turning her back on the ocean with reluctance solely so that she could climb back up the headland a bit faster.


It was dumb, she acknowledged, once she had several more metres of land between her and the water’s edge. Whatever that had been was some kind of… unnervingly big fish. An eel or something. But they lived in the sea, and if it was hanging about in the deep water it wasn’t going to come up the beach and it definitely wasn’t going to get her all the way back here, on dry land where fish couldn’t go.


“Next time I’m going on a city break,” she muttered, heading back to the resort as fast as she could without actually running.


~


Despite her best efforts to ignore the experience away with the free dance class in the evening, it stuck in her mind. One lone red flip-flop sat under the hotel room basin and looked accusingly at her as she fell asleep.


That night, Malia had one of the dreams she’d not had since she was a kid—long ago, before she came out, she’d been obsessed with The Little Mermaid. She’d worn out the VHS, and when her mum had got the DVD player she’d campaigned for a copy of it on DVD until her mum threatened to send her to a psychologist. Her therapist said it was “surprisingly common” for girls like her to be fixated on that specific story, and she’d not given it much thought since.


But tonight she dreamed about swimming, her long trailing iridescent tail a streamer in the water behind her, over white coral sands that stretched on forever.


~


She got up the next morning with a steely determination to just go swim in the bloody ocean and pretend it wasn’t full of cone shells and huge weird fish and sharks and lobsters and giant octopuses and all that. She bought a new pair of flip-flops at the beach shop for an amount that made her head spin, and pointedly walked past the entrance to the resort pool with her head up.


The nearer she got to the beach, the more small, howling kids there were coming in the opposite direction, dragged by exasperated parents.


A sinking feeling began in the pit of her stomach.


“Don’t waste your time,” sighed one blond white woman in a floral bikini when Malia had gone through the whole rigmarole of explaining that she was deaf, twice, and getting the woman to face her to explain. “It’s absolutely covered in them.”


“In what?” Malia asked, not sure if the woman had actually said or not.


But she turned to yank on her screaming child’s arm and remonstrate with them.


“Be glad you can’t hear this,” she said, grimly, when Malia could see her face again. “He is being intolerable.”


Malia swallowed her response and picked her way down to the sand in her brand-new yellow flip-flops.


She looked out across the white sweep of the bay. It was different this morning: it looked almost as if hundreds of deflated balloons, the size of dinner plates, had slopped up to the high tide mark and now lay there damp and shimmering under the morning sun as more and more people came down to the beach, stopped, expressed visible disgust, and left again.


When she got closer she understood what the kid had been squawking about: the blobs were beached jellyfish.


“Yuck,” said Malia.


Still, they didn’t look like the dangerous kind. In her panicked, too late to cancel research before the trip, she’d Googled every single potentially deadly form of wildlife, taken a diazepam, and dealt with their existence. These looked like the not-horrible kind, the no-hospital-trip kind, the not-getting-paralyzed-and-drowning kind.


She picked her way carefully between them down to the water’s edge, where a couple of more fortunate ones were sloshing back and forth on the surf like the worst pool toys imaginable.


Apart from them, the water was completely clear.


Peering out over the water, she couldn’t see anything that looked like a big fin, but there were shadows or darker patches, probably seaweed, a few metres off shore.


And besides, just because these jellyfish weren’t dangerous didn’t mean the arsehole ones weren’t slopping about out there too.


“No swimming today,” Malia said to herself, and she wandered along the water’s edge back towards the resort, careful to watch her feet.


By the jetty, the boat-tour man was just setting up, with the expression of someone who knows he’s going to have to sit in the boat doing absolutely fuck-all for the first two hours because tourists can’t be bothered to get up in the morning; Malia wandered down along the jetty.


“Are you starting tours yet?” she asked, once the guy had stopped shuffling his lunchbox around behind the seats. The floor of the boat opened out into clear plastic, showing off strands of seaweed and the odd curious little grey fish darting around by the jetty in the hopes of dropped food.


“Yeh,” he said, barely moving his lips, and something that looked like, “But Mr [Something] is not coming. He’s [sick]. No guide.”


“That’s fine,” said Malia, with some relief. “I can’t hear anyway. Can I come down?”


With some reluctance the boat-tour man helped her onto one of the plastic benches and, rather to her surprise, awkwardly offered her a spare t-shirt. It had the name of the resort on it; Malia supposed he had some issue with her sitting opposite him in an outfit she’d intended for swimming.


After a moment or two more fiddling, the boat-tour man started the little engine, the boat vibrated, and they jerked away from the jetty, cool ocean air bouncing up off the little wavelets to wake her and drive the scent of the sea into her hair.


Malia zoned out slowly, watching the sand rushing past below her through the bottom of the boat. Now and then fish zipped away beneath, heading back towards the shore. Ahead, the presence of a coral reef—artificial, encouraged to grow on a couple of deliberately-scuppered ships, according to the resort website—was indicated mostly by the presence of a red-and-white buoy bobbing in the rougher waves that swirled above it.


Fish swirled and reshaped themselves closer together in a nervous shoal, like a flock of birds in the evening sky back at home, as they drew closer to the reef.


Something considerably larger passed under the boat, long and thin, dark green with a golden shimmer. It vanished out of her line of sight and the fish regrouped.


The boat surged on.


The bigger fish returned. It was sort of the shape of an eel, but thicker. About the width of a muscular man, the kind who played rugby, or a woman who was really serious about lifting weights. It was sleek. It had an unusually-shaped head that made it look from above as if it had a neck.


Malia looked up. The buoy was closer, the boat-tour pilot apparently whistling something, because his lips were pursed. He sat by the tiller and gazed out at the ocean, lost in thought. She looked back down at the glass panel.


The large, eel-like fish passed again. It had a trailing back fin. The tail was muscular like a dolphin.


It twisted upside down and all at once Malia clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle a startled noise.


A pair of round, forward-facing eyes and a jagged set of teeth in a jaw that stretched right around a round, humanoid face looked up through the bottom of the boat and met hers with a terrible, alien intelligence that made her obscurely glad she hadn’t eaten breakfast so she couldn’t throw it up in alarm.


A part of Malia that was much older than the part which reminded her to shut up at the sight of it expressed a very strong urge to get the fuck out of there.


The urge only got stronger when the fish lazily swished its strong tail—keeping pace with the boat without effort—and came closer to the bottom of the boat to stare up at her.


What looked like hands but couldn’t have been were clasped against the thing’s chest.


Millions of years of divergent evolutionary history gazed at each other across the abyss of a few inches of clear plastic and stomach acid fought its way into Malia’s mouth.


Her thoughts flashed back to the deep-water promontory and the hand she thought she’d seen clutching the rocks, the big tail fin she thought she’d seen behind the apparent diver, and she pressed her own hand harder against her mouth to stop any involuntary noise. She held her breath for good measure.


It unfolded what were unmistakably hands and made a clear, coherent movement with them right up against the bottom of the “glass” panel where there was no possible way she could mistake what was happening.


In perfect British Sign Language the thing signed: You dropped something.


Malia almost swallowed her tongue to retain the scream that was threatening to burst out of her lungs. She looked up instead to catch the boat-tour pilot’s eye, to make sure he was seeing what she was seeing, to get some idea of how the hell to react to this, this, this intelligent fish, this sign-speaking tropical, hand-having… mer-thing—but he wasn’t looking.


He was steering them towards the buoy, laughing uproariously.


Malia stared at him.


He waved a hand in front of his face, and said slowly and distinctly, “I think someone shows off how far he can swim, what do you think?”


He pointed at the buoy.


It was not red-and-white, she realized, now they were close enough for her to see it properly. It was white. Someone had quite carefully used a piece of plastic twine—maybe from a fishing net, it looked like the fishing-net material she’d seen at the working harbour—and tied to it a single, red, flip-flop.


Her flip-flop.


Malia froze. She gripped the sides of the boat as the boat-tour pilot steered it up to the buoy. She refused to look down at the bottom of the boat.


“I would like to go back, please,” she said, clearly and carefully.


The boat-tour pilot gave her a curious look. “Feel sick?”


“Yes,” Malia agreed. It was probably the easiest explanation.


“I will get,” he turned to point at the buoy, so she missed half of what he was saying, but when he turned to face her again he said, “—for the ocean, so we clean up often.”


He brought the boat up against the buoy, untied the flip-flop, and tossed it into the bottom of the boat.


Without looking down at it, in case the thing was still underneath them, Malia said, “That’s my shoe.”


The boat-tour pilot frowned at her. “Did you put it there?”


“No,” said Malia, “I lost it. I can’t swim that well.”


The boat-tour pilot nodded sympathetically. “Nasty boys playing a trick. We will go back.”


She stared resolutely at the jetty all the way back across the water, willing it to arrive faster so she could be away from the terrible knowledge of what lived in the ocean—or, she supposed, the terrible knowledge that she’d lost her mind completely.


At the jetty, she and the boat-pilot traded: his t-shirt for her flip-flop. She gave him, in addition, an awkward smile, and, yellow flip-flops on her feet and red flip-flop in hand, slopped back to her hotel room to drink every single complementary teabag they had.


~


After several shaky cups of tea while the red flip-flops, now reunited, sat accusingly under the en suite basin, Malia ran away to lunch; she returned replete with fried tilapia and rice-and-peas, feeling a little less like she wanted to go home immediately.


Going sunbathing, she thought, would be fine. They’d have cleared the beach by now—there was a cleaning crew leaving even as she had headed back to her room—and it wasn’t as if she was going anywhere near the water. The water where eel-things with hands who apparently knew better sign language than some of her classroom-assistants at school had done just… helpfully returned flip-flops.


She went back to the sand in the yellow flip-flops, somehow reluctant to put the red ones back on.


They were perfectly good Havaianas. There was absolutely no reason to assume that they were somehow now dangerous. She could just give them a good scrub to get any potential jellyfish stingers off them and—


Malia slopped along the beach-side path in the yellow flip-flops until she reached the end with the fewest people on the now jellyfish-free white sands. The afternoon sun beat down on sizzling bodies and the resort’s neon-blue parasols and wind-breaks.


The emptier end also happened to be the end where the look-out and the promontory were.


She pulled herself together and strutted uneasily onto the beach, laying her sunbathing towel out well past the high-water mark despite the looser sand. She took her book out of the straw beach bag—so far she’d read three pages because she kept getting distracted but now there was a good reason to concentrate—and sat down with a thump on the forgiving sand.


Five minutes later a very human and very unwelcome shadow fell over her book and scuffed white sand over her towel, her book, and half of her back.


Malia knew exactly which dickhead’s feet were responsible and tilting her head so that she could glare at him over the top of her sunglasses only confirmed what she already knew to be true: it was the dickhead from the gym.


She said nothing.


When he was quite sure he’d got her attention, he squatted down and said, “OH, SHIT, DIDN’T SEE YOU THERE.”


Malia very pointedly pulled her sunglasses back up, and rolled onto her back so she could hold the book between her face and the sun—and just coincidentally, between his face and hers.


He shoved the book out of the way.


“HEY. DON’T FUCKING IGNORE ME. I’M TALKING TO YOU.”


Malia clenched her jaw, which she’d been trying to get herself out of the habit of, and very, very pointedly returned the book to its spot in front of her face. It didn’t matter that she was too bloody angry now to focus on anything on the page.


This time the dickhead from the gym actually slapped the book straight out of her hands and smirked down at her, not bothering to yell anything.


Malia took a deep, steadying breath, and said, “If you wanted this spot you could have said so.”


“DO YOU LIKE, TUCK YOUR DICK UP YOUR ASS?” he asked, which, on the scale of shitty, vile ‘questions’ that weren’t questions Malia had received from people didn’t really rank much above a five.


“Do you always shout about genitals on family beaches?” Malia retorted. His knee was far too close to her face. She had a horrible vision of him bringing it down onto her nose and breaking it. She had a horrible vision of him doing something, the kind of things you heard about from other girls, and the lifeguard doing nothing, and the families doing nothing, because they all somehow approved of it—


“YOU SHOULDN’T BE ON A FAMILY BEACH AT ALL,” said the dickhead from the gym. His hair was gently oozing oil down the side of his face. She wondered if he’d noticed. Maybe he thought it was just sweat, but the viscosity was all wrong. Who the hell oiled their hair back to go to the beach?


She was about to reply, her heart thudding in her chest at the horrible, horrible, certainty that he was about to start hitting her, when his head jerked round abruptly.


Do I fall for this? Malia asked herself.


She got up quickly, grabbing the towel and her beach bag as fast as she could, out from under where he squatted, but he didn’t pay her any attention.


Instead he got to his feet, and stared out at the ocean with his hand raised over his knock-off sunglasses.


Malia risked a glance over her shoulder, and what she saw distracted her completely from the possibility of escape almost as much as it distracted him from harassing her: a long, sleek, dark body with a prominent fin the shape of a blunted triangle was cutting through the water, heading directly towards the shore, exactly to the point where they stood.


Although they were above the high water-mark, Malia took a few steps back.


People were getting out of the water hurriedly.


She couldn’t see what the dickhead from the gym was saying, but from the way he was pointing vigorously at the sea and staring, it was something like what the fuck is that. He’d clearly forgotten all about her.


The shape vanished from above the waves and there was a swirl of motion further back again. Malia held her breath until she could hold it no longer. The dickhead from the gym got out his phone from his shorts pocket and called someone—shooting one last look at her as he strutted away.


Malia glanced back at the sea.


Something that looked very, very like an arm protruded briefly from the water.


She blinked against the sun.


The thing on the end of the arm which looked like a hand but really couldn’t have been asked, in perfectly good sign language, Are you okay?


And Malia took a deep breath, picked up her beach bag, and stomped back to the hotel room as fast as she could without looking like she was actually running.


~


The resort event for the evening was “Twilight Tiki.” This made no sense culturally, since Tiki was a Pasifika thing and the resort was in the Indian Ocean. It also made no sense chronologically, as the sun had already finished painting the sky so red it was almost purple by the time the tourists were allowed down onto the hastily jazzed-up beach.


As far as she could tell, the only real “Tiki” component was the flaming torches. To confuse matters even further, there were lei being handed out to guests as they arrived, and the no-doubt weak cocktails were served in either green coconut shells, or plastic moai heads like the ones of Rapanui. Culturally it was a car crash, and had almost certainly been thought up by someone in events who was stationed back in the resort company headquarters in Tampa, who’d only set foot on the island once.


On the other hand, Malia accepted once she’d tried one of the rum cocktails in the green coconuts, the drinks were pretty nice, the music gently vibrating up her legs wasn’t as bad as she’d feared, and didn’t make her teeth hurt once it got into her jawbone, and she liked the dress she was wearing. It was a comfortable wrap-around that looked fancy but didn’t feel like she’d dressed up unnecessarily, and while it definitely showed off the boob job, it didn’t look like she was doing it on purpose, and it even went nicely with the red flip flops.


The motion of the ocean against the beach, just out of the range of fairy lights, looked like a hypnotist’s simplification of waves, animated intervals intended to make her drowsy: white lines moved over the black, dissolved, and formed again offshore. With her hearing-aid in, they sounded like static.


Several white men in chino shorts and short-sleeved button-downs, all reeking of beer, thundered past her towards the water, one of them holding one of the tiki torches.


Malia flinched out of the way, and sighed.


She tried to concentrate on the Twilight Tiki: a bar, two different snack tables, some burning torches, some souvenir stands as always, an Instagram photo-op spot, a DJ, and someone she recognized as the boat-tour pilot, now with a small girl who looked like she was probably his daughter, who had a table with a sign reading “coconut carving” on it.


It was no good: the idiots splashing water at each other drunkenly, jabbing firebrands into the night while the resort staff looked on with a body language that clearly said I’m not getting involved until after one of them hurts himself, thanks, had captured her attention.


Malia wandered along the beach out of the way of the Tiki to look at the stars. One of the best things about visiting the island so far had been how clear the skies were: she had hardly been able to believe them on her first night.


“I’M GOING TO CATCH A SEA SERPENT,” roared one of the drunk men.


Malia looked up. It was unmistakably the dickhead from the gym, and from the beach. He was waist-deep in the water with a flaming torch over his head, whooping and shouting. His friends, on the shore and up to their ankles, up to their knees in cool evening water, had their phones out to a man and were shouting encouragement.


“COME OUT,” yelled the gym idiot, swooshing the torch about over the surface of the water. “I’M GONNA CATCH YOU AND I’M GONNA BE FAMOUS!”


There was a splash, almost inaudible among the yelling, and the music and the chaotic cacophony that capably illustrated why Malia hadn’t bothered with her hearing-aid for most of the holiday so far.


The gym idiot jerked forward like a stop-motion animated figure miming vomit.


His face hit the surface of the water and for a moment, before his torch extinguished itself, Malia was sure she saw something dark and hand-shaped grabbing the back of his head.


The men on the shore laughed and whooped. One of them punched the air. None of them seemed to be worried.


The white waves swirled as the gym dickhead went under completely, and the no-longer-flaming Tiki Torch bobbed up and down.


Fuck, thought Malia, picturing that face with its round eyes and jagged teeth and human hands.


She walked up to the nearest torch and plucked it out of the sand.


The rude man from the gym hadn’t resurfaced.


The water began to churn.


“Hey, what the fuck?” shouted one of the more sober men on the beach. Malia wasn’t really sure if he meant her, or if he meant what was happening in the water, but she was sure that she didn’t give a shit which it was.


She dashed into the water as fast as she could in her flip-flops and the dark, with a burning torch that might splash hot oil on her at any minute—


—The water churned violently, and a leg protruded for a moment.


“Oh shit!” shouted another of the men, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything.


“HEY!” Malia yelled, over her shoulder, “GET SOMEONE?”


She didn’t wait for an answer, for them to make fun of her accent or ask what the hell she meant or anything else. She threw herself forward through the waves towards the disturbed water.


Don’t let him be dead don’t let him be dismembered I don’t want to see someone’s guts—


She had absolutely no idea what to do.


Malia took a deep breath, and stabbed the handle of the torch randomly into the water.


Something bumped it.


She dropped the torch: it fizzled as it hit the water, but the oil spilled along the surface, and ignited.


Shit fuck, Malia thought, trying to leap out of the way.


She hunkered down under the surface, cold water closing over her back, over her hair, over her fucking hearing aid—and complete darkness surrounded her.


Blindly, she flailed: No! Stop! Let go! into what might only have been empty water, except that waves buffeted her.


Something slapped into her shins—


Malia burst back out of the water. The flames were out. There was no sign of anything beneath the oil black surface of the ocean, only two dead Tiki torches bobbing on the waves.


A second head broke the waves with a gasp.


Shaking, wide-eyed, and looking for all the world like a half-drowned dog, the dickhead from the gym broke out of the water and began stumbling towards the shore as fast as he could go.


He didn’t acknowledge her presence.


~


She stayed out of the water for the rest of her holiday, keeping to the resort swimming pool. Malia noticed that the idiot from the gym didn’t seem to have much of an appetite for the ocean anymore either—and more importantly, as far as she was concerned, he’d lost his desire to keep harassing her with whatever bullshit had driven him to get in her way in the first place.


When the time came to pack, she left both the red and the yellow Havaianas in the “donations” bin by the resort exit without reading the charity blurb about where they were going and why she should leave them there.


On the connecting flight somewhere over Dubai, Malia peered out of the window at a cloudless world that stretched until the curvature of the earth deleted everything into a pale blue line, and remembered the alien-looking fish-face staring up at her from underneath the boat: perfectly round eyes so different from her own sitting above a jagged slash of a mouth, and a pair of hands: You dropped something. Are you okay?


She tipped her head back to try to see space above the line of the earth, knowing from long experience that she wouldn’t quite manage it, as the plane passengers did whatever it was in silence and her hearing-aids, no worse the wear for a short dip and worth every penny she’d had to spend on swimmers-aids, sat mutinously on zero volume so she wouldn’t have to hear their children complaining all the way home.


Next time, Malia promised the distant fish-person, I’ll just let you take the thing you want. God knows no one else is going to want that dickhead.


But she knew she wouldn’t, if it came to that.





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