The next morning Aveny dropped the kids off at school and drove north, along the well-worn track toward Olympia and Puget Sound. She coached herself as the interstate exit numbers increased.
You can do this. The skin is gone. It’s time to accept that.
She had stood along the water’s edge perhaps a hundred times over the preceding weeks – picking up garbage and engaging in other clean-up efforts – but never with the skin. She’d left it home, tucked under her mattress. It was safer there. And she was safer with it there too.
Aveny remembered the first time she’d brought the skin to the sea. Well, she didn’t really remember it. She hadn’t exactly been conscious. But she remembered the aftermath; that wild liberation; the unbridled glee. She longed to feel it again – just one more time.
But that was not to be.
Her bones ached and her skin burned. She was spent with exhaustion and despair. She wondered, if she’d known then what she knew now, would she have done it? Taken that first dive? She told herself no; she never would have taken that risk. But her heart whispered yes and she knew it was true.
Even if she never again soared through the sea, even if losing the skin shortened her life, even if it was only downhill from here – she had touched real-world magic. She had danced in the divine mystery of the unknown – and she would never have forsaken that.
Aveny shouldered the backpack containing her precious cargo and navigated through the woods, along the dusty trail leading to the sea. When she spotted the glinting white sparks of effervescent light dancing across the sound, she cut off the well-worn path.
She picked her way around familiar stumps, patches of undergrowth and mushroom-encrusted rocks to her special place. It was secluded and safe, hidden far from prying eyes. There she set her bag on a downed tree and slowly pulled the zipper.
The sight that met her eyes tore her heart.
The skin was a crumpled mess. The invisible stitches were in chaos. Strange peeling layers of translucent material curled up from the jagged stitch marks like sunburned skin. The simple act of folding the skin and placing it gently in the sack had completely undone them. Only the stitches remained, looking Frankensteinian on the dead flesh.
Repairing it was, in the end, a pointless endeavor; doomed to fail. Aveny had known it probably would be – but knowing didn’t make it hurt any less. She gathered the skin in her hands and walked solemnly toward the sea. Her steps were heavy and intentional – a funeral procession of one.
She halted on a mound of soggy, algae-covered rocks along the water’s edge. She ran the skin through her fingers, tracing from the curve of the head to the end of the tail, then out to each flipper; like a Catholic priest before the cross. Her hands culminated at the right flipper, and she found herself gently peeling away the remaining glue. She didn’t want it there. Not anymore. It was time to return the skin to the sea and she wanted it as clean and unmarred as possible. It was the least she could do.
She couldn’t save it – just like it hadn’t been able to save her.
Aveny crouched down and spread the skin out over the water. It floated there for a brief moment – a furry life raft. Then, it slowly descended beneath the surface.
The waves pushed the skin immediately back to shore, refusing to claim Aveny’s offering. She stepped deeper into the sea, pulling the skin after. There was something strangely comforting about the poetry of this.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered. She swirled the skin through the water and then spread it out before her one last time. “It’s time to go home,” she murmured.
She pushed the skin out into the water and again, the current pushed it back. She didn’t protest but relished one more chance to run her fingers across the soft, saturated surface of the skin. Its texture was so perfectly silky – nothing like the jagged ruin she’d made of the right fin. She felt for the harsh alien wound one more time, a reverent form of self-flagellation. The invisible stitches had completely dissipated now. Useless, she thought. Even the thread stitching had come unfurled, long strands trailing eerily in the water like black jellyfish tentacles.
Aveny’s fingers froze involuntarily. It took a moment for her brain to catch up with what her body already knew. It wasn’t only scattered fiber strands on the flipper. A long, jagged scar ran along its edge from the body to the tip – ugly but healed. The raw incision was gone. Her fingertips sparked.
Aveny choked on her own breath, then burst into uncontrollable sobs. Her back and chest shook – a mixture of raucous grief and celebration. She clutched the skin to her chest and let the tears flow, pouring from her eyes, cascading over the skin, and splashing into the sea below.
She cried out all the stress of the preceding months; all her guilt, worry, confusion and fear. She released it all in great, wet torrents, until there was nothing left.
She gazed intently at the scar, running her fingertips over it again and again to confirm its miraculous repair. Then she held it up to her own forearm. The two lines were a perfect match. They were branded now – she and the skin – forever. As if they weren’t already.
Aveny heaved a great sigh of relief, savoring the soggy renewal blossoming inside her soul. It felt like a great storm had passed.
And then she stepped forward, the water engulfing her waist and tiny shells crunching into oblivion in her wake. Renewed, she lost herself in the sea; discarded human clothes sloshing against the shore, the only evidence she’d ever walked on two legs.