Aveny knew something was wrong the minute she heard it. The sound cut the night with its strange guttural desperation. It chaffed her skin and pieced her heart. Only a quarter of a breath in duration, but it alerted every screaming sensation in Aveny’s soul.
She had just emerged from the inky depths and was floating peacefully atop the water, staring into the luminescent glow of a brilliant full moon. The sound shattered her reverie. Even the moon’s rays seemed to splinter in response. She froze – wondering at its source; fearing the answer.
Then she heard it again – muffled now. This time it was accompanied by a violent scurrying, like a mouse caught in a trap.
Aveny didn’t think; she simply dove beneath the surface and propelled herself toward the source. She crossed the wide expanse in a matter of minutes. She hadn’t moved that quickly for months. She’d been too careful for that. But instinct overwhelmed such thoughts. Even in her panicked haste, it felt good to soar, to brush against the limits of her capabilities.
She surfaced near the rusty hull of an old ship. She knew it well. It had bobbed in this corner of the inlet’s industrial section for decades – a last remnant of a forgotten time. Its large shadow draped her in blackness.
The noises had stopped, but she could still detect a strangled, erratic breathing nearby. She gravitated toward its pull, her soft, shiny head skimming above the water like a shark’s fin.
The sound emanated like static from a boat sequestered between the old aquatic vessel repair shop and the floating logs where her harbor seals often congregated. It wasn’t big or otherwise noteworthy – just an old motorboat.
Three forms stood out from its edge, silhouetted in the brilliant moonlight. Aveny sidled up to the metallic form, tucked out of sight beneath the boat’s long shadow. Here she paused, silently, and listened.
An almost silent edge accompanied the breathing – restricted sobbing. The sound was female – Aveny was almost certain. The form from which they emanated was sitting at the bow. Her knees were pulled up to her chest, wrapped in her shaking arms. Her face was hidden, buried in the hard mounds of her knees. Her back heaved erratically with the sharp, jagged pulls of her breath.
The other two forms were masculine, large and broad. Each was dressed for the night’s cold in dark, heavy coats and warm stocking caps. The girl was not, though it was hard to tell if the cold was felt through her fear.
One man unraveled the ropes binding the boat to the dock. The other lifted a sack and began sifting through its contents. Neither so much as glanced at the girl until her breath hitched in her throat, emitting a panicked whine. The closest man turned and backhanded her across the face with a loud smack that echoed across the sound. Her head twisted unnaturally with the impact. Silenced, she coiled tighter, pressing the wounded side of her face deep into her shoulder, struggling to contain the sounds.
Aveny’s heckles rose. Electric sparks danced across her skin, rolling in waves down her body and radiating out from each appendage. Wrong.
“Dammit. What the Hell are you doing?” hissed the other man, angrily yanking the rope. “You’re making more noise than she is.”
“Not anymore,” his partner responded, a low rumbling chuckle reverberating like a mountain lion’s purr.
Aveny’s pulse raced. Normally she would’ve fallen into complete panic, but the water soothed her thoughts and honed her senses. This girl should not be here with these men. She was in danger. Aveny knew she had to do something. But what?
“You have to show them their place,” the offending man continued gruffly. He stepped over, wrapped one heavy hand around the girl’s mouth and pressed her head into the boat’s edge with a dull thud.
Through the pain, the girl’s glistening eyes locked onto Aveny’s wide black orbs. Sparks shot between them.
The man stood, laughing. “See it’s just like a dog. You gotta break ‘em early.”
Aveny reacted on pure instinct. Slipping beneath the surface, she lunged up and out of the water harder than ever before. As she ascended, she focused on the cloth right between the girl’s shoulder blades. That’s where her powerful jaws latched. Then she pulled.
In an instant, the girl was air-born. She weighed almost nothing at all. The boat rocked violently in response, pitching both men into the side and slamming into the hard wooden dock.
In a millisecond, Aveny and the girl were gone, racing beneath the sea. Aveny couldn’t move as quickly as she would have liked, pulling the girl’s waterlogged form behind her. She hoped the girl had the good sense to hold her breath.
Then, Aveny felt disturbance in the water. The boat’s engine was alive – and coming toward them. She doubled back and surfaced in the hidden space beneath the docks. The girl gasped and struggled to flee. But Aveny curled one fin around her, patting a soft, methodic rhythm until she seemed to surrender. They both understood. Silence was everything.
Peering out from the shadows, Aveny could see the men circling the area; the roving beams of their flashlights crisscrossing its waving surface. Aveny knew it was only a matter of time before one of the beams illuminated the dock as well.
Slowly, silently, she paddled along the length of the dock, attempting to gain more distance and struggling to pull the girl behind her. Sensing this, the girl turned and wrapped her thin arms around Aveny’s neck. Together they maneuvered between rocking hulls and wooden beams, slowly working their way further and further from the angry rumbling of the boat’s engine.
As the adrenaline subsided, Aveny sensed the girl shivering violently; the motion startled Aveny with its intensity. She’d have to get her out of the water soon, or she’d succumb to hypothermia. The girl didn’t have the thick layer of protection Aveny did. But where could she find refuge?
Aveny thought of making a mad dash to her car but it was far away on the opposite end of Budd inlet. The girl would never make it.
Aveny quickly worked her way under the dock’s heavy wooden planks to the marina. Here she spotted a large coil of rope dangling from a concealed metal cleat. She paddled over to it, stopping where the heavy strands brushed the sea. She bumped the girl against the rope, gently nudging her to take hold. The girl wheezed, coughed, and finally latched on.
Aveny knew there were houses nearby, homes the girl could run too, if she could manage. There might even be someone here in the marina who could help. But the girl seemed dazed and confused.
Aveny nudged her upward with her nose, straining to convey urgency with her gaze. The girl stared at her dully for a moment, then the notion seemed to register and she hoisted herself upwards, holding her torso aloft for just a moment before her arms gave way and she slipped back into the water. She wasn’t shivering anymore. That didn’t seem like a good thing.
Aveny slipped underwater and used her head to push the girl up, onto the dock. It was unwieldy and the girl’s bottom slipped back and forth over her cranium. Finally, she felt the girl’s weight lessen. When her feet disappeared from the water, Aveny surfaced.
They locked eyes one last time. The girl’s gaze was laced with disbelief and confusion. Aveny jerked her head toward the tree covered hill, urging her to go. The girl didn’t move.
Aveny’s mind raced through the possibilities. Should she transform and tell the girl to run, blowing her own cover? Or should she disappear beneath the surface, transform, climb onto the dock behind the girl and act as if she’d just encountered her there? The last option seemed most preferable – aside from Aveny’s lack of clothing.
As she prepared herself to disappear and transform, she registered something else: the low rumble of a boat puttering into the marina. Aveny widened her eyes and jerked her head one last time, willing the girl to go, quickly, before they saw her.
Finally, the girl understood. She scrambled up the long dock, the only sound a soft patting from her bare feet on the salt-cured wood. She moved quickly but Aveny knew she’d never make it out of the marina without being seen. There were plenty of places to hide, but the girl wasn’t taking cover. Her mind was locked on flight – and the only way out was an exposed dock.
She needed a distraction.
Aveny slipped beneath the water and sped back to the opening of the marina. She ducked under the slowly skimming boat and surfaced by the hull of a large daysailer. As she emerged, she flipped through the water and whacked the surface loudly with her tail. The motion sent sharp waves of pain through her body, and even sharper waves of sound through the night.
Two beams of light shot toward the sound. Aveny ducked beneath the surface and came up under the protective shadow of the dock. Resting on the wooden planks overhead, she noticed a plastic crate filled with bric-a-brac. Quickly, she propelled herself out of the water and knocked it over, spilling clattering sound onto the dock as she did.
The men turned the boat around and followed the sound. Aveny slid beneath the dock and emerged in open water where she spotted a pile of buckets perched on the floating dock. Quickly, she made her way over to them, propelled herself upward and knocked them over with her nose. The resulting cacophony offended the night.
The boat exited the marina and made its way toward the sound. With a sinking heart, Aveny realized that only one figure was now onboard.
Where was the other?
She swam into the open water at the marina’s gate and searched the slowly shifting shadows for a sign of movement.
Had the girl escaped?
Had she bought her enough time?
Then she saw him, stalking slowly along the dock, searching the night for his prey. But where was the girl? Aveny prayed she was long gone. But prayers weren’t enough. Her muscles tensed. She had to draw them out further. But how?
She did the only thing she could think of. Quickly, she arched her back and curled into the water, transforming as she went. When she emerged, her hair spilled into the sea and her lanky appendages paddled furiously to hold her weight. She clung to the skin in one churning hand – clutching its impotent comfort.
Aveny didn’t hesitate.
“Help!” she screamed, thrashing about in the water like her life depended on it. She had no idea what the girl sounded like but it would have to do.
Within a second, two beams of light were upon her. She slipped beneath the surface, concealing her face and leaving only the churning water as evidence of her presence.
She heard voices and felt the motor’s rumble increase. At the last second, she curled back into the safe comfort of the skin and, with the boat’s motor churning just overhead, she swam like her life depended upon it.
A hundred yards away, she resurfaced and screamed again. The boat followed. Again, she transformed and sped away, resurfacing a hundred yards further, pulling the men farther and farther into the sound with her cries. Each time, she disappeared just moments before their arrival. Swim, transform, surface, splash, scream, sink, transform, repeat.
Seconds felt like days. Aveny’s heart pounded and she grew dizzy with exhaustion. But still, she pressed on, leading them farther and farther away. She couldn’t give up until she was sure they’d never find their victim again.
Up, flail, splash, scream, repeat. The theatrical game of cat and mouse was working.
The eighth time she broke the surface, she instantly realized something was wrong. It was sound more than sight. It was too loud. Too close.
It took only a fraction of a breath to realize she’d misjudged their speed. The boat was right on top of her.
Aveny arched her back and attempted to reverse course, transforming and propelling herself back into the depths. She barely missed the boat’s impact – but not its motor blades.
A violent churning burned down Aveny’s right side. Torturous flames erupted in her abdomen, threatening to consume her.
She attempted to swim but the pain screamed through her useless body, rendering her incapable of thought or motion. Limp, she sank through the darkness, watching the soft grey surface rise farther and farther from view.
Down, down, down.
Static blurred her vision, giving form to the loud buzzing in her ears.
“Mommy, I don’t want you to die.”
Aveny blinked, trying desperately to maintain consciousness.
Tali crawled onto her lap, tears welling in her wide beautiful eyes. Aveny shifted her bandaged arm gingerly to accommodate the little girl, hugging her tightly with the other. Her daughter’s hair felt heavenly against Aveny’s cheek.
“Don’t worry baby, I don’t plan on dying until I’m very old,” Aveny said with a smile. “Not until my hair’s all white and my face is all wrinkly.” Aveny made a face and Tali smiled. “I’m going to wait until I’m so old I forget how to put on my own socks and you have to help me use the bathroom. Then you’ll be ready for me to go.”
Tali giggled. “Gross mommy.”
Aveny hugged her tighter. “And when I do go – far, far, far into the future – I’m going to stay close and do everything I can to watch out for you and help you along your way.”
Tears brimmed in Tali’s eyes, threatening to wash her pudgy, cherubic cheeks.
“Don’t worry,” Aveny assured her. “I’m not going anywhere. See, look.”
Tali lifted her glinting eyes to Aveny’s face.
“I’m still alive!” Aveny beamed. “Look how alive I am. And so are you! And we’re both going to stay that way for a long, long time.”
She hugged her baby close, wrapping her body around her like a mother seal embracing her young; grateful for her arms and the delicate beauty of the moment.
It was far away now.
Aveny struggled futilely against her sinking body as the memory slid out of her mind and into the abyss. The dark blur circling her eyes closed in, leaving only single pricks of distant light. Then everything faded to black and there was nothing.
Nothing at all.