The drive to the sound was punctuated only by the noise of surrounding traffic. The air was so thick with tension, Aveny could hardly breathe. She kept expecting Brand to turn off the road early and take her to the nearest asylum instead.
She ran her fingers over the skin, calming herself and trying not to think about what would come next. So much was riding on this one moment. If it didn’t work, she’d lose everything – if she hadn’t already.
And she wasn’t even sure it would work – that she could transform. She hadn’t tried since that horrible day in the marine rescue center. But she knew that if it could work anywhere, it would be the sound.
Aveny guided Brand to her spot with a series of one-word directions. When they finally stood together on the gravelly beach, gazing out at the sound, she started to speak. But the tactile feel of his anger silenced her. She knew he couldn’t hear her. Not like this. Not after everything that had happened. “Please just stay,” she said. “Stay and watch. Don’t run away.”
She walked over to the edge of the water and gently rinsed the skin in the surf. She could feel it sparking with life beneath her touch.
“Not too far, Aveny,” Brand cautioned warily.
She hoped he would forgive her.
Suddenly, she launched herself as far out into the sea as she could. Two bounds and she was gone, deep beneath the surface of the waves, the deep bass of Brand’s “No!” echoing in her ears.
The transformation came easier than she’d thought it would. As it did, she was almost overcome by a longing to escape into the deep dark blue. She could already feel it beckoning her renewed form. But she held on, turned back to shore and plunged up, out of the water.
Brand was standing at the edge of the sea, hysteria etched into the lines of his face. He jerked back violently when he saw her, a wild animal emerging suspiciously from his wife’s vanishing point. She slid up to him, her own shirt clutched in her mouth.
He backed anxiously away. She edged closer. He stepped back. She dropped the shirt on the beach and looked him squarely in the eyes. She nudged it toward him and locked gazes with him again. She thought she detected a trace of recognition flickering across his stunned gaze, but it was gone too quickly to be sure.
She picked the shirt back up and wiggled closer to her husband. This time, he didn’t move. She dropped it at his feet, looked up and locked eyes with him again, willing him to bend down and see her. He remained frozen.
She rubbed her head against his stiff calf, nuzzling it tenderly. He cringed and stepped lightly away, his mouth agape. His face had gone pale.
Slowly, without breaking eye contact, Aveny nodded her head up and down three times, willing him to know the truth.
He didn’t respond.
I need something else, she thought to herself. She looked down to see if she might trace her name in the sand, but it was nothing but rocks. She groaned in frustration, a bellowing call that she immediately regretted as Brand flinched.
She turned and slid back to the water’s edge, stopping every few inches to look back at Brand. Each time, she jerked her head toward the sea, motioning him to follow her.
She feared she may have broken him for good.
Soon the water was lapping at her abdomen. She slid deeper into the cool liquid, feeling its sensation wash around her in luxuriously invigorating waves.
She turned, looked at Brand once more and jerked her head three times toward the sea. Slowly, he stepped forward. As he did, she rolled back into the waves, transforming as she went.
When she popped her head above the surface, Brand was there, right by the edge. His expression was indecipherable. She’d expected him to gasp or cry out but he didn’t. He looked, for a moment, like he might bolt. But he didn’t. Instead, he charged forward, grabbed hold of her arm and pulled her out of the surf, she dragging the empty skin in their wake.
“It’s ok, Brand,” she protested. “It was me – that was me.” She pulled away from him, causing them both to stumble and fall in opposite directions.
When he scrambled to his feet, it was just in time to see her submerge, and reemerge as the dark eyed visage of a seal.
The seal dipped its head back beneath the surface and Aveny reappeared calling, “It’s me Brand. Just look. It’s me. I’m the seal.”
The words felt more liberating than she could ever have imagined. She submerged again, transforming as she went. She switched back and forth, praying against all hope that he could see; praying he wouldn’t run; praying she wasn’t really crazy after all.
At last, she called out, “come closer – see for yourself.”
This time, he did.
He slowly waded into the water, not even pausing to pull off his shoes. He stood there, waist-deep, watching her transform. As a seal she swam up to him and wove in between his legs, curling up and around his torso in a friendly embrace. He didn’t run. Hesitantly, he reached out and ran a hand along her smooth back.
Finally, she emerged, her long dark hair running in rivers down her shoulders “This is what I couldn’t explain to you – or to anyone,” she said, searching his eyes for acceptance. “Do you see why?”
Brand just nodded, one curt jerk of the jaw. He opened his mouth to speak and then closed it again. A long silence settled between them. “How?” he finally asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “It’s the skin. The skin does it.” An idea flashed across her mind. “Do you want to try?”
“No.” He shook his head for added emphasis, his eyes growing wide. Then he sighed and pressed his face into his hands. “This is all just a lot to take in,” he muttered.
Aveny nodded in response, then asked, “Can I tell you the rest?”
His eyes softened. “Yes.”
The story poured out of her. She and Brand curled up next to each other on the shore, wrapped in an aspirational picnic blanket Aveny had tucked into the car trunk months beforehand – envisioning idealized family outings – and never used since, until now.
She told him everything.
Every. Single. Thing.
When Aveny finally ran out of words, Brand asked, “What happened to the girl? The one you pulled off the boat?”
Aveny shrugged. “I don’t know. I never did find out. I Googled to see if I could find a police report or something about her, but there was nothing.”
Brand gave a curt nod and stared down at his hands.
“Do you believe me?” she asked, vulnerable and unsure.
Brand sighed. “After what I just saw, I’m not sure I believe myself.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you from the beginning,” Aveny said. “I didn’t see how I could. It all just seemed so crazy. I thought that’s what I was – for a while. I should have just told you everything. I’m so sorry.” The words caught in her throat and made it hard to swallow. “I’m so sorry for putting you and the kids through all this.” Tears poured down her cheeks. “I’m so, so sorry.”
A darkness fell across Brand’s visage. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said. “It is amazing – but it’s not safe, Aveny. You almost died – twice. If you had, we never would’ve known what happened to you. I don’t trust it.”
Aveny felt remorse giving way to a rising wall of protective anger. She took a deep breath and pushed it aside. He wasn’t wrong and she knew it. She wanted to deny it, but it was true. She’d nearly died twice in as many months. It wasn’t safe.
“I know,” she admitted. “I told myself I wouldn’t go back after the first accident. But I couldn’t stop. I need to be here. It’s part of me now. I had to come back.”
She paused, drawing in a long, ragged breath. “I don’t think I could stop even if I tried – just like I came here that first time without even knowing I was doing it – I’d come back. I need it.”
“You sound like an addict, you know that, right?”
“I know. But it’s true. I didn’t know what it was like to be whole until this happened. I feel alive like I never have before. It’s who I am and I can’t lose that.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly what an addict might say.” Brand parried with pursed lips. Then he added softly, “I always thought you were whole.”
Aveny’s heart fell. “It’s not that,” she countered. “I’ve always been so happy with you. Nothing will ever change that. It’s just that this opened up a part of me I didn’t even know was missing….” The words felt stupid and awkward on her tongue but they were true.
“Listen, just try it – you’ll see.” Aveny pushed the skin into Brand’s hands. He looked down at it warily, then finally relented. “Ok, I’ll try it – just for a minute; just to see.”
He smirked. “You better not get me hit by a boat full of criminals.” The joke fell flat but neither of them cared. Its mere utterance felt hopeful – like they might one day laugh together again.
Aveny walked with him back into the water. Then she released his arm and let go. He waded deeper and stood with his back to her, the skin an unsure offering in his outstretched hands. Aveny held her breath and waited.
“Ok, now what?” Brand called back.
She paused, confused – now what? “Ummm… you just do it,” she replied. She tried to remember what happened when she transformed – what did she do? She didn’t really do anything. She just slid into the sea and switched. “I think you have to be all the way under the water,” she called out.
“It’s freezing out here,” Brand replied.
Funny – she hadn’t noticed. She never did.
Brand braced himself and slid beneath the surface. The water rippled out in calm circles where he’d disappeared. Aveny waited, anxiety lapping at her heels.
It was only then that she realized Brand might give into the wild allure of the sea and jettison away from her – perhaps never to return. After all the stress of the preceding weeks, it might be too much to resist. And what if he got hurt out there? What if he died?
It would be her fault. She felt the breath constrict in her lungs.
But then Brand’s head broke the surface of the water, droplets radiating out like a garden sprinkler on a hot summer day. He drew a loud breath and immediately coughed. “Nothing happened,” he called back. “Nothing at all.”
Aveny threw the blanket onto the beach and pressed forward. She took the skin gently in her hands. Almost as soon as it touched her, she was beneath the water transforming. And then she was back. “I’m not sure what I do – it just happens. Could you make out anything when I did it just now?”
Brand shook his head, jittery with cold. “It’s just a weird blur.”
“Nothing happened at all for you?” she asked, confounded.
“Nothing,” Brand replied, his teeth chattering violently. “I gotta get warmed up.”
Aveny stared at him as he hurried back to the blanket, a slight aura of mist emitting from his retreating outline. How could it be? Was it some kind of finder’s keeper’s situation? She ran her fingers thoughtfully over the skin, then turned to see Brand shivering at the edge of the water, the blanket wrapped tightly around his sopping shoulders.
She stepped lightly across the slippery rocks and he held his arm out to receive her. She slid gently inside, wrapping her arms around his waist. In a moment, his shivering quelled.
“You’re abnormally warm, you know,” he said.
Aveny shrugged and nestled deeper into his embrace. They breathed together for a long moment.
Brand stared out at the horizon, his brow furrowed. “I think that, whatever this thing is, it only works for you.”
She stared at the skin, thoughtfully. “Maybe.”
It was one of many unknowns – so many, Aveny wondered if she’d ever understand. But in that moment, only one thing mattered – Brand was here and he believed her. That was all she needed for now.