“Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.”
- William Shakespeare
The rain beats color from the Earth – churning grey twists the sky inside out and the blueness of the ocean gives way for darkness that spreads like a growing bruise. The thunder roars with drumfire as lightning pierces the water and pulses through it like a living vein.
Haruka fights against the waves, straining to see through rain that hits like bullets. His insides run cold when he hears the boat crash into the rocks. The scream of metal has ice clawing down his back and he tastes the salt of his own tears for the very first time.
He is overcome by a turmoil of emotions he has never felt: a sorrow that crests into a physical pain; a resolution that catches his blood on fire. With his mind set, Haruka turns away from the crash and lashes through the water toward the marina, scales flashing in a white-hot burst of lightning.
Makoto wakes to the invigorating scent of saltwater. The cab of his mom’s truck is drenched in humidity; this trip has been endless torment of heat, haze, and no air conditioning. He stretches, headphones lolling down, ears flexing at the distant cawing of seagulls. His eyes fly open and he lurches up against the window, excitement rising in his chest as blue ocean spills across the horizon line.
He can barely take it as he waits for skyscrapers to turn into gas stations and fast food joints, then it all shrinks away into sand. The landscape rolls with dunes, climbing higher with pastel condos on stilts. Traffic narrows into a black ribbon of one lane highway as road crews repair pavement damage from the recent storm, and the stench of exhaust fumes makes the summer temperature that much more nauseating, but eventually the highway spreads into five lanes and his mom floors it.
The truck jerks into the far lane as tourists jaywalk to get to the beach. University students race from their assignment deadlines on neon sports bikes, wearing nothing but swim trunks or bikinis with their bulky helmets. A teal Jeep barrels through traffic, tires spraying sand, surfboards jarring the cargo bars as the radio’s bassline leaves the very air quivering.
Their next exit narrows into a cobblestone roundabout in downtown Iwatobi. Ferns hang from black street posts, stems tumbling over the hanging baskets and flowing like green ribbons. Makoto cracks his window and smells tanning oil, beer froth, baking calms, and frying fish. Stores line the busy streets; gift shops with flaring neon in the windows, antique stores with lacy ironwork, and restaurants with balconies hanging off the edge of the cliffside.
Makoto stares at the fountain in the middle of the roundabout as the truck circles it. A mermaid statue is the center piece – she is cast in bronze and gold flares off scales in the sunlight. Her hair whips across her face like she fights against the wind and she reaches desperately toward the sea, oblivious to the people taking pictures with her and reading her plaque.
Makoto’s grandfather built that statue fifty years ago. Her grief-stricken expression made Makoto feel guilty as a child, but when he asked his grandfather why she looked so scared, all he said was, “You’ll know why one day.”
Makoto is seventeen now and he still does not know why, but that odd sense of shame still comes with the sight of the mermaid. He thinks he might be the only one to be disturbed by it – Iwatobi has been known for mermaid sightings since the 1800s and the wave of hopefuls that come every summer is what keeps the town going.
His thoughts turn elsewhere as the truck splits from the downtown congestion and heads for the wetlands. Makoto watches the beach rush by, the water stretching to the quivering horizon line as heat carves the air in two. The sight of the ocean is conflicting; Makoto’s chest tightens with nostalgia even as his eyes dart to every rocky island like he will be able to sense where his grandparents’ boat crashed mere weeks ago.
His mom takes his hand in understanding but her voice is strained. “Mako, are you sure you want to do this?”
His pulse startles quicker. “You said you thought I should –”
“I know,” she snaps in a burst of frustration. “But I –” She fumes a sigh and pulls off on the side of the road, burying her face in her hands for an overwhelmed moment. Makoto rubs her back in silence, waiting in the soothing lull of waves because he has no words of comfort to offer when he needs them so badly.
Gradually, her voice ventures. “It’s just overwhelming to be here. Way more than I prepared myself for.”
Makoto breathes a tired laugh. “I know what you mean.”
She sweeps a hand through his bangs in dazed wonderment. “I can’t tell you how much I think of you for wanting to come down here and be with your dad. He was so close to his parents.” For a flash of a second, the resentment gives way to empathy, which Makoto is thankful for, because he no longer has the strength to placate his mother and father’s arguments.
He meets his mom’s gaze and while both of them have green eyes, their depths have changed in a thousand different ways. Hers are bagged with exhaustion; his are a dying light. Even so, the love still shines through because they have been all each other has ever since the divorce.
Well, up until seven months ago, anyway. Makoto really didn’t have it in him to protest it when his mom met a guy at the bar where she works and got married just two weeks later. He makes her smile, really smile, and that’s really all that matters, regardless of how awkward living with a stranger is for Makoto. Even if her pregnant belly is very much the elephant in the room, Makoto never felt jealous – he is ready to fly apart with joy at the prospect of being a big brother to twins.
But that thing about placating arguments and living with a stranger? Well, let’s just say there might be more than one reason why Makoto wants to stay with his dad over the summer, though the trip was spurred on by his grandparents’ disappearance. He refuses to call it their deaths even in the privacy of his thoughts. Vehemently, he refuses. Their boat might have been found in wreckage but no bodies have been found yet – they won’t be.
Either way, Makoto’s dad is accepting defeat after weeks of searching and Makoto just cares too much to let him face all of this alone, regardless of divorces or anything else.
He squeezes his mom’s hand. “I’ll be fine. I can handle myself, Mom.” Been doing it for a while now.
She bows her head in stubborn acceptance and puts the truck back into drive.
His dad lives off the highway down a white ribbon of sandy road carving through dark forest. Willow trees billow overhead, whispering with the breeze. Purple and yellow wildflowers circle the nearby swamp and Makoto shudders when a baby crocodile drenched in pollen muck slides into the water.
The truck breaks through the coastal wilderness and drives into the welcoming sunlight. A short boardwalk guides the way through a rippling field of wheat, leading up to Makoto’s childhood home, and the sight is almost disorienting. It is still a humble, traditional structure with salt-distressed wood paneling and a tin roof that sears in the afternoon light. His heart swells at the rocking chairs on the front porch and his chest aches when he sees his dad sitting in one of them. The chair on the right is empty because that is where Makoto’s mother used to sit.
His mom parks the truck and Makoto steps out, fit to burst into light, he beams at his dad so hard. He eases out of the rocking chair and clomps down the porch, boots flaking mud as he approaches.
Makoto is shocked when his father embraces him because never does he initiate comfort so blatantly – it says so much of how he has suffered over the past few weeks. Makoto hugs him fiercely and his dad breathes, “Hey, boy.” He gives him a firm squeeze. “Good to see you.”
“You too,” Makoto whispers, holding him close for just one more moment to savor it. It’s amazing that even at six feet tall, Makoto can still feel small. His dad is taller, stronger, and does love him, as miserable as he is with emotions.
Makoto steps back and his dad works his hands into the pockets of his greasy khakis. “You, uh.” He flaps his elbows. “Got taller.”
Makoto laughs, ducking his head. “A little, yeah.”
It is nice to see that his dad has not changed – not physically, at least. His glasses are still held together with duct tape at the frames and the lenses are cloudy. He’s working two day stubble and there’s dirt in the creases of his frown lines from working outdoors. His flannel is wrinkled and faded with age; in fact, Makoto remembers it from before the divorce, which was seven years ago.
His mom slides out of the truck and Makoto watches his dad’s mouth firm into a line. Makoto’s bones sink in dread and the tension presses down from both sides as his parents stand on either side of him, using him as a barrier.
His dad clears his throat and nods. “Hey.”
His mom busies herself with smoothing the creases out of her sundress so she will not have to look at him. “Hi.”
His brows crease at her stomach. “You’re pregnant?”
She crosses her arms over her belly. “Yeah.”
His voice is distant. “Oh.” He looks away.
Makoto could scream for hours.
His mom sags in defeat and finally meets his gaze. “I really am sorry about your parents, Riku. It makes me question so many things because –” She swallows thickly. “They were good to us. They were good people.” She takes a deep breath. “You can – you could call if you need to, okay?”
His dad stiffens in surprise, then his shoulders bow under the weight of grief. “Thanks, Sara.”
They both turn their gazes away and Makoto knows that’s as good as it’s going to get.
After his mom leaves, Makoto shrugs on his backpack and his dad walks him to the house. He opens the door and sweltering heat drenches Makoto, the air stale and thick. “Air con’s broken,” his dad grimaces. “Buddy of mine won’t be able to look at it until Monday morning.”
Makoto’s right eye twitches because he just went hours in the truck with no air conditioning and he might actually die, but he will try to do it with a grateful heart. “No problem,” he assures, voice cracking just an octave too high.
He is happy that so many details of his childhood home remain intact. The walls are still painted a refreshing shade of white, even if the family photos are gone. In the kitchen, he trails a hand over the dark cabinets, tracing their glass doors with a distant mind. He climbs the creaking stairs to the second floor and opens the first door on the right.
His grandparents’ room looks like a preserved shrine. Her easels are still set up with blank canvases ready to be painted and his desk is still cluttered with paperwork. Makoto’s laugh is pained. “He hated the smell of her oil paints.”
His dad quirks a smile, leaning on the doorframe. “You remember her specialty?”
Makoto turns to an unfinished canvas on the easel by the window, which frames an inspiring view of the shore. The sketch of a boy is in pencil and even in the frozen two-dimensional world, he is elegant. Every curve of him has the ingrained grace of a bending ocean wave, everything from the sweep of his waist to the arch of his back. His hair is shaded black, strands billowing like he is underwater. His jaw is sharp and heavy charcoal outlines his eyes, making them appear cold and hard, but somehow Makoto knows that his grandmother shadowed them with such depth because she believed there was more to the boy than his fierce exterior.
Makoto’s gaze trails down the boy’s torso to where his body narrows into a tail and flares out into a fin. “She liked painting mermaids,” Makoto breathes. She finished his tail; his scales are raised with definition and each one is painted with as many changing shades of blue as the ocean itself. She thought a lot of this boy to give him so much detail.
The memory of his grandmother’s care overwhelms him and he heads for his bedroom before anguish can swallow him whole. Most everything in his room is the same as well – the dresser is there, his bed is here, the window is over on that side of the room. He thought that being in his childhood room would fill him with aching nostalgia, or at least some memories, but it feels like going into his grandparents’ old bedroom pushed him past his emotional limits and now he is numb.
Though he does feel a flutter of something when his dad clomps in and clumsily presents him an antique desk fan with brass blades and a wire cage. “Since the air’s broke, I got you this at a yard sale this morning.” He shrugs at the fan’s olive base. “I remember you like green, so.”
In times like these, his awkwardness is the most endearing thing in the world. “Oh wow, thank you.”
His dad puts it on the nightstand and rubs the back of his neck. “You, ah, get hungry or anything just let me know. We can order pizza or whatever.”
All at once, he remembers that he has not eaten in two days. Hunger eats him alive, but his stomach is already so heavy with grief that he could not ingest anything if he tried. He forces a smile. “I’m all right for now. I think I’ll just lay down. It was kind of a long trip, you know?”
“Oh, right. Course.” His dad goes to leave but pauses in the doorway, head bowed. “I, um. I appreciate you bein' here, Mako. Really.”
Makoto’s heart swells. “I’m glad I came, Dad. Really.”
His dad looks over his shoulder and smiles tiredly before closing the door behind him. Makoto deflates all at once and flops on the bed.
He never falls asleep – his mind is reeling too hard to let him even close his eyes. Through his window, he watches the orange sunset blaze across the ocean like liquid fire. It dies out in a purple haze and the night comes alive with a roar of crickets and the croaking of frogs echoing from the swamp. It is a blessed change from the overwhelming city he and his mom moved to with her new husband, but not even the countryside ambiance can send Makoto into dreamland.
He hears his dad’s bedroom door close and sits up. He remembers which floorboards squeak and walks around them to pull the back door open just far enough so that it will not creak.
The ocean laps at the backyard, seafoam hissing as moonlight ripples over the black sea. A dock stretches into the water and it guides Makoto across the waves so he can sit at the edge. This was his favorite place as a child and his best memories all took place here, like naming cranes with his mom, fishing with his dad and grandfather, he and his grandmother watching porpoises rear up for air in the early morning fog. All of it is a lifetime away and he will never get one piece of it back, not ever.
He doesn’t mean to, but he weeps. He didn’t want to, he tries so swallow it down, but not even his self-loathing can cease the tears. He feels such rage at his grandparents for boating out into that storm in the middle of the night for no reason, without even telling somebody where they were going. He hates himself for drifting away from his dad even if he was the one who worked too much and drove the family apart in the first place. Makoto cries because he feels like his mom threw him away for a new life even though she didn’t, she hasn’t. She asked if Makoto was okay with her marrying her boyfriend of two freaking weeks because she cared about his opinion, but – but what could he say? How could he say no, how could he beg her not to do it after she’d been alone for seven years?
It feels like everyone he needs has left him or is oblivious to him needing them. He could never ask anyone to stay for him, but his heart screams for somebody to finally reach out to him.
His muscles tense under the sudden weight of a stare. Awareness prickles across the back of his neck, the air thickening with a new presence.
Makoto turns around and his breath lodges in his throat. A boy stands on the dock mere feet away; Makoto heard no approach and wonders how long he’s been watched – oh God, if the boy heard him crying. He is barefoot and… oh wow, okay, no shirt. Like, at all. The dock lights pour amber over naked skin that ripples like liquid gold. Makoto’s eyes follow as a bead of water rolls down the muscled valley between his pecs, down a thick row of abs, disappearing into the jammers slung just low enough to expose the scored line of his hip. Never before has Makoto’s mouth watered and his throat dried so quickly.
He watches moonlight play in the silken darkness of the boy’s hair. His eyes are the most saturated shade of blue Makoto has ever seen, nearly glowing against the night. The boy’s brows raise anxiously and Makoto realizes that his face is still wet with tears. He wipes his eyes quickly, blurting, “Sorry.” He doesn’t know why he says it – it’s automatic. It’s shamed.
The boy hunches fretfully. All at once, he thrusts his hands out in offering and Makoto cranes back.
It’s oysters. Raw, still-wet-from-the-sea oysters. Their iridescent shells flash in the dock lights and really, nothing about them is appealing to Makoto, but his belly thinks otherwise. Pressure aches in his gut, demanding, and when his stomach growls the boy nudges Makoto in the belly insistently. Makoto blinks once. Twice. “You… want me to eat them?”
The boy nods urgently.
Makoto’s lips part for words. He doesn’t know what to say and he cannot find his voice as the boy sits beside him. He scatters the oysters out and gives Makoto a pocket knife, then waits expectantly.
Makoto stares. “You get that all of this is really weird, right?”
The boy raises his brows with wide-eyed exaggeration. Your point?
Makoto sighs. Shrugging to himself, he picks up an oyster and tries to remember how his grandfather taught him to do this. He turns the oyster flat side up and wedges the blade into the hinge at the edge of the shell. Then he presses down and pops the hinge open, parting the bottom and top shell. He shifts the oyster in his palm, eyeing the boy warily, but he is unwavering.
Makoto winces and brings the oyster to his lips. He holds his breath as he tips his head back, and it’s a rush of wet salt and nutrients, protein, food. His eyes nearly roll back. He cuts open another one, then another, and the boy watches him the entire time, making sure he eats.
He tenses in surprise when Makoto cuts open one for him. “You too,” he says, because while this exchange might be the strangest experience of his life, he can at least remember his manners.
The boy takes the oyster, his fingers cold and pruned. Up close, his skin is flaked raw and iridescent when it catches moonlight. Makoto turns his gaze away before his eyes can trace the muscled curve of his outstretched arm.
They listen to the waves in silence and while awkwardness still flutters in the air, Makoto is relieved that he is not expected to talk. For once, he chooses to speak, and gratitude is deep in his voice. “Thank you.”
The boy turns away to blush and nods.
Makoto chews his lip, peeking over into the boy’s field of vision. “I’m – I’m Makoto.”
The boy hesitates, then his voice flows like liquid silk. “Haruka.”
Makoto’s face floods with warmth. “Haruka,” he breathes.
He wants to say something more, but the boy taps one of the last few oysters. Open that one.
Makoto frowns in confusion but does as he is told, shucking away until the oyster splits. He squints down at it and gasps when something flashes inside. “No way,” he whispers, rolling the oyster to make the pearls dance. “No way!” He laughs at Haruka in disbelief. “How’d you know those were there?”
Haruka smirks and settles back against a pillar, gliding his toes across the water without replying.
Makoto cups the two pearls in his hand, marveling at how they flare pink in the moonlight. He holds one out to Haruka, who stiffens. “They’re yours,” Haruka mumbles.
Makoto grins. “Technically, they’re yours since they were your oysters.”
“But the oysters were for you.”
“Then you,” Makoto says, “should let me give you one of my pearls.”
Haruka stares. Numbly, he opens his palm and Makoto drops a pearl there, ducking down to meet the boy’s shy eyes through his fringe. “See?” he murmurs gently. “It’s not so hard.”
Haru parts his lips, gaze darting to Makoto’s mouth. Their eyes lock and Makoto realizes how close together they are, the sweet warmth of Haruka’s breath lulling over his face, blue eyes threatening to drown him.
Makoto turns away and tries to clear his throat but it sounds like rocks in a blender. Haruka swallows, then pushes the last oyster toward him. “You should finish.” He crosses his arms with purpose and Makoto groans. Haruka’s toes flick water at him insistently.
Makoto sighs and shucks away, but he has a smile as he does it.