Chapter 2

“Maybe she wants something,” Brand mused. Aveny’s husband leaned back in his beach chair, the wind attempting to ruffle his impossibly thick black hair. “I know she didn’t say anything but did she look a certain way? Like, did she look happy or sad, or pissed?”

Aveny considered the question. “No. She doesn’t look … anything. She’s just there. Watching me.”

“Do you think it has something to do with the skin?” he asked.

Aveny wasn’t sure. There was nothing about the woman that alluded to the skin, except the timing. How likely was it that she’d find a magical seal skin in her grandmother’s attic, discover its ability to transform her into a mythical selkie, and then find a strange woman haunting her dreams for some completely unconnected reason? It seemed naive to think these strange occurrences unrelated.

But the real question remained: who was this strange and entrancing woman?

“There’s something familiar there,” Aveny said thoughtfully. “But I can’t place why. If she is connected to the skin, that might mean we’re related.” Then something dawned on her with a cold splash of unease. “Unless someone in my family stole it from her.”

“Yikes,” Brand added. “Let’s hope it’s the former.”

“I’ve already been through all our family photos,” Aveny said. “She’s not there.”

“Does she look like anyone who is?” Aveny’s Great Aunt Miriam asked, looking up from her seat reclining against a fallen log in the sand. 

“I don’t know. She has dark hair, like most my family on Grandma’s side. But beyond that, it’s too hard to tell. I just know she isn’t in any of the pictures. I’d know her if I saw her.”

“What about the other sides of your family?” Brand pressed.

Aveny shook her head, a stray filament of hair catching the wind and sticking to her Chapstick-coated lips. “Blech,” she spat, detaching the offending strand and tucking it vengefully behind one ear. “I already checked. Nothing.”

“Maybe she’s not from the past – maybe she’s alive right now and is trying to tell you something,” Brand offered.

Aveny considered this as she gazed out at the rolling surf. The idea was enticing. Perhaps there was someone out there who could finally give Aveny the answers she so desperately longed for.

She inhaled a deep breath of salty sea air. It was delicious. Seagulls ducked and dodged overhead, scanning the shoreline for any trace of a tasty morsel. They’d be fending for themselves today. The cool weather had rid the shoreline of its usual hoard of slovenly beach goers. After a steady diet of discarded Cheetos and unguarded sandwiches, the seagulls were back to foraging for unfortunate shellfish. They seemed particularly agitated about the unanticipated reversal. But for Aveny and her family, the solitude was ideal.

Her kids, Tali, Brecken and Luca, waded ankle deep in a nearby inlet, jockeying floating pieces of driftwood back and forth across a tiny canal. They laughed and flicked tiny streams of water onto each other, seemingly immune to the icy tinge in the air.

It was a Sunday tradition now – this weekly trip to the sea. With each visit, they explored various hidden enclaves along Olympia’s slice of Puget Sound. Sometimes they ventured further north. Today, they’d headed west – away from the tame waters of the sound to the wide expanse of Pacific Ocean surrounding Cape Disappointment. Aveny felt invigorated here, her body imbued with a strange sense of steely-eyed focus and mental clarity coupled with an unhinged wildness that both thrilled and frightened her.

Unlike Brand, who disliked sand’s natural tendency to infiltrate every available crevasse, Aveny sat on the ground, her legs buried in tiny tan particles of rock and shell. The tingling sensation of each grain shifting and cascading along her flesh sent shivers of pleasure up her spine. She sighed contentedly and dug her hands greedily into the texture.

“So we have no idea who she is,” Brand reiterated, his piercing blue eyes scanning the horizon. They darted back and forth, a telltale sign of the analysis occurring within. “All we know is there’s this lady who shows up in your dreams and just stares at you every night?” 

It had been every night – every night for weeks. And each waking memory was getting clearer.

“Yep – that’s about it,” Aveny confirmed.

“Have you ever tried to talk to her?”

“I’m not sure I could. I can’t move or anything. It’s like my body is still asleep but my mind is awake.”

“Next time, you should see if you can force yourself to say something to her. Maybe she’s just a figment of your imagination and confronting her will make the dreams stop.”

Aveny considered this. “I’m not sure I want them to stop. I just want to understand.” She couldn’t quite articulate the woman’s strange hold over her – the magnetic feeling she ignited in the pit of Aveny’s stomach – the curious yearning that leapt in her soul with each new encounter.

She didn’t want the woman to go away … she wanted more. She wanted the truth. She wasn’t sure if truth even existed in this midnight fantasy but something told her there was more to the story – her story – and, whatever it was, the woman in Aveny’s dream was the key. 

“You know,” Miriam added thoughtfully, her gaze locked on the ocean’s horizon, “In my experience, if someone keeps coming around, eventually they’ll tell you why. All you need to do is wait and listen.” She paused, then added, “Unfortunately, those are two of the hardest things a person can do.”

Aveny nodded somberly. The three of them fell into silence, as if expecting the woman to appear right there on the beach.

After a long moment, Aveny stood, the sand running in wild torrents down her legs and pooling in tiny mountains on the beach. “I’m going for a quick swim. Are you guys ok with the kids?”

Brand nodded, a deep, analytical expression still casting its impression on his face.

Aveny bent and pulled the soft grey skin from her sand-dusted backpack and walked purposefully toward the imposing wall of wind-battered rocks at the end of the beach. Hiding her transformation was a fairly needless precaution, considering the only humans around belonged to her. But it was part of the arrangement she and Brand had struck to keep her – and all of them – safe.

“Be Smart” was the chief tenant of their deal – along with good communication and wearing a small waterproof tracking device they’d found on Amazon, in case she ever went missing again. They were reasonable precautions, and concessions that Aveny was more than happy to make considering she now visited the sea almost every single day.

It felt good not to have secrets. And Brand had adjusted to this new reality with startling ease. “I’d already lost everything,” he had explained when Aveny pointed this out. “When you went missing – both times – and you almost died, and when you came back but it seemed like you’d lost your mind,  before I knew about the skin… Well, there was nothing left but to start over anyway.”

Aveny’s heart still sank every time she thought about what she’d put her family through. She should have trusted Brand from the beginning – or at least tried. But they’d made it through in the end, and that was all that really mattered.

As Aveny climbed over a small boulder and out of sight, she caught a glimpse of her forearm, traced with the shadowy impressions of rippling muscles. She smiled indulgently at the sight. A mean scar still twisted across the skin, refusing to relinquish its grip, but beneath, her body had changed. She’d become sleeker, stronger. Her hair had shifted from a frizzy brown to a heavy, ironwood-hued mane. The rouge colored rosacea in her cheeks was entirely gone, cooled after every swim. If she stayed away from the sea too long, it would steadily rise again like a barometer – every day until she returned. As she strode toward the water, she relished the confidence of her gait.

And then she was airborne, diving into the surf with wild abandon, jetting out into the vast unknown of the open sea.

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