Chapter 1: Part One
Late on a windy summer morning, pressed against a rock face five feet above the shoreline of an island an hour’s drive south of Savannah, poised to take the perfect photograph of an endangered pipered plover, Jack Zimmermann dropped his camera bag into the ocean.
Well. In his defense, it was less of a drop, and more of a wind-related accident. One second, he was poised with each foot on a different slick rock, and the next he was spinning around as fast as he could as soon as he heard the unmistakable wet plop of something hitting the water. Foolishly, he’d set his bag down on the pier as he hurried back to the shore to get the shot, and the spot where he’d left it was out in the open where a gust of wind had caught it while he wasn’t looking.
Jack cringed and hopped back up onto the pier as he hurried to get as close as possible to where the bag was now bobbing along the surface. It was a nice bag. He’d had it for several years-- in fact, it had been a gift from his father to commemorate his first project with National Geographic -- and it had served him reliably since then. He hadn’t quite fully understood everything said by the chain-smoking park ranger who’d guided him around the wilderness preserve the day before, but he did recall the man saying to be careful on the sagging pier, since the water was fairly deep at the point where it ended, some forty feet away from the shore. The wood seemed fairly solid here close to the shore, but Jack could feel the planks underfoot get damper and weaker as he walked farther out to get closer to the bag. It was drifting farther and farther away by the second and was definitely out of reach. The only way to get to it would be to jump in the water quickly.
Jack couldn’t swim.
It’s something that had never seemed like a priority; by the time his father retired and they began to go on family vacations together, Jack was too old and too body-conscious to have any desire to learn. So he managed without, and had everything in his life gone to plan, he would likely never had needed to learn.
Of course, things didn’t go to plan. He’d turned in a different direction after the draft, and picked up photography when he’d taken a class on it his freshman year of college, then never looked back. He’s been on several nature shoots now where swimming skills might have been handy, though-- he just hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet. Between his freelance shoots and teaching classes at the community college in Providence, it was easy to avoid the unfortunate inevitability of being a thirty-year-old man taking a class to learn something that most children know how to do by age eight.
Needless to say, he was regretting his procrastination now.
“Tabarnak,” he swore, under his breath, even though there was no one else around to hear. He tended to be quiet even when alone, with no one but the breeze and the birds to hear him.
He looked around, as if some boat or flotation device would suddenly appear to help him in this time of need, but it was hopeless. Wolf Island was a government-sanctioned wilderness area and closed to the general public. The only people to come here were the occasional ranger, and now himself, after he’d gotten special permission to shoot some photos of the birds the area was created to protect.
Of course his day had to go like this. He’d gotten up with the sun so he would have time for a long run on the mainland where he was staying at a tiny bed and breakfast, and only made it a measly two miles before the brutal heat had forced him to turn and head back. Then, of course, the coffee pot in the B&B kitchen had broken during breakfast and he’d been forced to head into town to get cheap gas station coffee before he headed out to the island for a long day of shooting.
He was so convinced that the day was taking a turn for the better when he’d spotted the flock of plovers. He wanted that shot on the cover of Nat Geo . Of course this had to ruin things. Now he would have to replace his bag, and even if he was able to retrieve it, the lens caps and other small things he’d had in there might be horrifically waterlogged by now. He thanked some higher power that he’d left his other lenses in the rental car on the edge of the preserve.
He knelt down on the edge of the pier and reached as far as he could, but he was about three feet too short of being able to reach the damn thing. If only he had some sort of tool to reach-
Oh. That could work. He straightened up and jogged back onto the island, eyes trained onto the ground as he sought out a stick long enough to hook around the bag’s handle to pull it back. There were a few smaller sticks that seem to have drifted up to shore during high tide, but no big trees nearby.
He glanced back at the water to see how much time he might have to run over to the closest ridge of trees, but he couldn’t see the bag at all, which was strange. He had sharp eyes from playing and watching so much hockey, and his eyesight was fairly good for someone his age. Maybe it had drifted under the pier? That might be good, because then it would be stuck and he could fish it out.
He caught sight of it much closer to the shore than where it had been before. In fact, it was on the move, bobbing along at an unnaturally fast pace, as if it had somehow developed a motor and a steering mechanism when Jack wasn’t looking.
He took a few steps closer, squinting. Maybe he did need to get his eyes checked out, because he could swear he saw something small and pale twisted around the synthetic black strap of the bag. A piece of driftwood, maybe? But the tone seemed too pink, and the movement of it too muscled and intentional. No, it was definitely an arm.
He hurried closer, on track to hit the shore right as the bag did, but the arm slipped back into the water just a few feet away from where ocean met land. Jack hesitated for a moment as his shadow fell over the surface of the water, watching the bag glide to a stop in the shallow pebbles just an inch or so below the surface.
A few inches of water couldn’t hurt him. He sat down on the rocks, feet hanging just a foot or two above the water, then slipped down, glad he’d worn waterproof boots instead of his sneakers. He quickly snatched up the bag, then held his hand against the ridge of his brow to block out the sun as he looked out over the surface of the water, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever had brought his bag back. There was nothing, of course. Just the water, peaking in whitecaps farther out where the wind was stronger, and calmer closer to shore, and nothing to see deeper down but the almost metallic flash of some fish’s tail catching the early morning sun.
There was no hand. Realistically, it was probably just a piece of driftwood. But Jack trusted his eyes, and he knew he’d seen something else. But now there was nothing but the wind, and the smell of salt in the fresh air, and the feeling of a damp spot forming on his shirt where he was holding the case tightly to his chest, and below that a deep, uneasy feeling that he’d had ever since he’d first arrived at the island.
He shoved it down. It was probably nothing but the same feeling he’d felt whenever he was alone lately. His parents had both noticed, and his dad had gone as far to say something the last time they’d spent a weekend in Providence, but nothing had come from that but a wildly uncomfortable conversation that had started with “Son, I’m worried you’re lonely,” and ended with “I wish you could just be proud of my career, Papa.”
And then they’d hugged it out, because Bob had become a hugger in the years after Jack’s overdose, and Jack couldn’t say he minded, even though it sometimes made him feel like a child. In the moment it had been stifling, and also enough to convince him to take this two week gig down in the middle of nowhere. He probably just needed time away from the city to recharge. Long shoots always did that for him.
He hoped this would do the trick. He didn’t know what he’d do otherwise. There was something in him that was longing, though, and it drew him to the ocean, which seemed like it might be the largest thing possible to fill that cavern.
Or maybe it would just be two weeks where he could get some good shots, spend some time with his thoughts, and then get a nice paycheck at the end of it. It would all go to plan. Quiet was good. He liked quiet.
And yet something yearned.
A towel. That’s all he was yearning for. A towel, and maybe another oily coffee. He’d come back to his birds later.
Jack spent the next two days shooting on different parts of the island, but at the end of each day he returned to the pier and watched the water for a while, sometimes through the viewfinder of his camera, and sometimes through with his naked eye, but he had no luck, and he wasn’t very surprised about it. Whatever he’d seen was likely spending its time in the water for a reason, and he could understand not wanting to be bothered.
And yet he returned each day, and each day, had no luck.
After five days, he decided to head further into the island to follow one of the small streams that snaked through the woods until they dissolved into a soft marsh. There were more trees alongside the shore there, and the light might be tempered by their presence, softer and gentler. It would be something different from the open light on the shore, at the very least. The shade would also be a respite from the sunburn that was threatening to develop, if the increasingly pink flush on his cheeks was anything to go by.
It was the sun that drove him deeper into the trees at midday, and he thought it might be reasonable for him to find a comfortable spot in the shade, back pressed up against a large, cool stone. The stone sat directly between him and the creek where he’d been shooting photos, but when he closed his eyes and let his mind drift, he could just barely hear the gentle sound of the running water. The noise easily lulled his mind, and as he drifted off he absentmindedly thought that he might need to get some kind of indoor fountain for his desk at home, if the sound of water put him to sleep this easily.
Then, of course, the same sound magnified jerked him out of his easy rest. He startled at the noise of a thick splash, then pressed his hand over his own heart, as if that would make it slow back down to a normal pace. He straightened up, wiped at where he’d managed to drool onto his own chin, and rubbed at his eyes, blinking to get used to the dappled sun again.
Then, another splash.
He held his breath and pressed closer to the stone again, cocking his head at an angle as he listened for more. For a few moments there was nothing, but then he heard something that was unmistakably identifiable as an off-key rendition of a pop song. He chuckled softly in spite of himself, then clapped his hand over his mouth, although whoever was singing kept on going, clearly unaware that he wasn’t alone.
Jack could work with that. He was just feet away from finally catching a glimpse of whoever it was he was sharing the island with, and he wasn’t going to throw that opportunity away. He began to inch his away around the stone, keeping his back to it, until he had a decent side view of the creek, and sure enough, there he was.
He’s not quite sure what he’d expected, but based on the singing voice, it made sense that it was a man. He had sun-tanned bare skin from the waist up and what looked like some sort of tight-fitting wetsuit on below that. His hair was blond and as warm as the rest of him, long and wet enough that it fell almost to his chin, although as Jack watched he tossed his head and flipped it before gracefully slipping under the surface again.
Almost against his own will, Jack clambered over a mess of underbrush to close the distance between himself and the edge of the creek. He dropped to his knees and leaned out over it, looking for the tell-tale movement of something as big as a person swimming just under the surface.
And there it was again. A metallic glint, a flash of skin, and then a tear in the surface as the water parted on either side of the man as he rose back up, just a few feet away from Jack. His big, round eyes looked almost glazed over for a moment, but as he blinked they cleared, and they were a warm brown underneath whatever film had been there before. Probably something to do with the saltwater, if Jack had to guess.
Jack could tell exactly the moment the man saw him, because he screeched, first wordlessly, and then again, shouting, “Oh my goodness!” as he clasped his hand over his heart.
“Oh,” Jack said, sheepishly. He could feel his own face flushing. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Well, you did,” the man said, voice clipped and curt, as he crossed his arms and gave Jack a once-over. “The island is off-limits to the public,” he said, narrowing his eyes. “You could get fined for being here.”
“Oh,” Jack said, again, dumbly and momentarily wordless. No, that wasn’t right. He did have a valid reason to be here. He reached or his camera, which was almost always at his side, but he must have left it back by his nap spot. “I’m, uh, a photographer,” he said. “I have a permit.”
“Right. You were the one out on the pier with the other day, weren’t you?” the man asked, only now coming a little closer-- close enough that Jack could see the droplets of water that will still running down from his wet hair onto his shoulders and chest. The planes of his torso were smooth, and as he moved closer, Jack could see the lean muscle just under his skin, most noticeable in his sharp abs, which ended just before the scales began.
The scales? Those were definitely scales, in warm bronze and almost pink-tinged, carrying on for what looked like the rest of the length of the man’s body, although the water was too murky below a foot or two deep for Jack to see where they ended.
Jack could feel his own eyes widen, but he forced himself to nod anyway, only allowing himself a second or two to stare down below the surface before he forced himself to tear his eyes away. His Maman had taught him better than to disrespect another person’s differences, and he knew a thing or two about being stared at in a locker room, which was a feeling he’d never want to bring upon someone else.
“I’m Jack. Jack Zimmermann,” he said, quickly, before he could say something stupid, and lowered down to a squat so he wasn’t completely towering over the man.
“It’s not nice to sneak up on people, Mr. Zimmermann,” the man said, although he unfolded his arms long enough to hold out one hand, dainty but strong as Jack shook it. His hands were rough and surprisingly dry. “I’m Eric.” He didn’t offer a last name, and Jack didn’t press.
“I’m sorry about that,” Jack said, although he was fairly certain he’d already apologized. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wanted to say thank you for getting my bag for me the other day.”
The man’s expression softened, and he kept his hand around Jack’s for just another moment before he squeezed it and pulled away, lowering slightly into the water again. Jack watched it rise up to his shoulders. “That’s… that’s sweet of you,” he said. “You’re welcome.”
Jack nodded and stood there for a few moments, speechless again. God, was he always this bad at talking to people? No wonder he’d chosen a career that allowed him to spend most of his time alone. “So,” he said, cautiously lowering from his squat onto his bottom and beginning to remove his hiking boots. “Am I supposed to know the song you were singing? Was it Taylor Swift? Justin Bieber?”
Something massive rose out of the water at Eric’s side-- the tail-- and before Jack had time to think, his face and the entire front of his shirt were soaked as it slapped back down and splashed him.
“Don’t blaspheme, Mr. Zimmermann,” Eric said curtly, although his eyes were narrowed with a coy smile as Jack sputtered and tried to blink away the water. He was absolutely drenched.
“I’m sorry,” he said, chuckling a little bit despite his slight shock at suddenly being very, very wet. “I have better things to do than keeping up with every pop diva they play on the radio.”
“Oh, you’re a piece of work,” Eric said, lifting what seemed to be the gauzy tip of his tail out of the water, then baring his teeth in a grin when Jack flinched. “That was our lady and savior Beyoncé.”
“Ah,” Jack said. “Of course. Beyoncé,” he said, sounding it out slowly as he set his boots to the side and rolled up the cuffs of his cargo pants. The name did seem familiar, for sure. “That was my next guess.”
“Of course, Beyoncé,” Eric parroted, making a face as he tried to do an exaggerated emulation of Jack’s pronunciation. “You aren’t from around here, now, are you?”
“No, I’m not,” Jack said, then hummed softly as he lowered his feet into the refreshingly cool water. “I grew up in Montreál. Are you?”
Eric shrugged. “I’m from not very far away,” he said, although he didn’t offer up any more information than that before he changed the subject. “What are you taking pictures of on my incredibly exciting and busy island?” he asked, dryly.
“Oh, it’s your island?” Jack said.
“Do you see anyone else around to claim it?” Eric asked. He’d slowly begun to drift a little closer to Jack, and raised his sunkissed arms up to the surface of the water, letting them float just on top of the surface as he leaned his torso toward the bank where Jack was sitting.
“There are birds,” Jack said. And there certainly were. He had photographic evidence, after all.
“Hon,” Eric said, flashing Jack a slight smirk. “I think you’ll find that I’m a lot more exciting than the birds.”
“I don’t know,” Jack said. “They’re really interesting. A lot of them breed along the Great Lakes, but by this time of year they’ve migrated down to the coast here.”
Eric didn’t respond at all, and Jack looked up to find him staring, eyebrows raised and arms crossed.
“Yes?” he asked.
“Of course the first pretty boy to come here in years is boring,” Eric said.
“So I’ve been told,” Jack said. “I do interesting stuff sometimes, though. I photographed wolves last month.”
“Aw,” Eric said. “Puppies?”
“Wolves,” Jack said, swishing his toe alongside a few tiny fish that scattered in response to the movement. “Are these guys friends of yours?”
Eric narrowed his eyes again and flicked some excess water from his fingers onto Jack. “You think you’re funny, don’t you?”
Jack closed his eyes and nodded. His spot on the edge of the water was in the direct sunlight, and the warmth was making him sleepy again.
“You know, I expected you to have more questions,” Eric said, voice closer than it had been a few seconds before, although Jack didn’t open his eyes to verify that he’d moved.
“I have a lot of questions,” Jack said, “But I don’t want to be invasive.”
Eric was quiet for a few seconds-- long enough that Jack’s eyes fluttered open and he found that Eric had ended up just a foot or two away, leaning with his arms along a large rock at the shore, head tilted while he watched Jack. “You get three questions today,” he said, tip of his tail flicking absentmindedly behind him.
“Okay,” Jack said. “Do you live here with other people like you?”
“There are others,” Eric said, “But I’m the only one here.”
“Okay. Have you always lived here?”
“Only for the past year or so. Last question.”
Jack swished his toes through the water again. “What’s so great about Beyoncé?”
Eric’s eyes narrowed, and again, his pupils seemed to blow wider than Jack had ever seen someone’s eyes get before. “Oh, honey. You don’t even know what you signed yourself up for.”
Jack grinned. He had a feeling he was in for a long conversation, and for once, he was looking forward to it.
Chapter 2: Part Two
“Do I get three more questions today?” Jack asked the next day, when he found Eric settled along the shoreline next to the pier, scrubbing at a soft-looking t-shirt with a bar of soap.
“Don’t you have birds to takes pictures of?”
“I’ve been out on the island since seven,” Jack said. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, and chalked it up to being too eager to get back out to the island. Better to take advantage of being awake and be productive, he had thought. “I could use a break.”
Eric hummed, sticking his tongue out slightly while he concentrated on getting out some invisible spot of dirt.
“Where’d you get the shirt?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Eric said, lifting it up to examine it in the mid-morning sunlight. He didn’t elaborate until he looked up a few moments later and saw Jack staring at him blankly. “Oh, sweetpea-- I’m just teasin’. I brought it with me when I came here.”
“Where do you keep it? In the water?”
“No! It’d get ruined!” Eric said, clapping his hand over his mouth in mock despair. “I have a suitcase I keep on the island where I have some things that I like to keep dry.”
“Does that mean you’re not always in the water?”
Eric’s hands froze, and the soap slipped out and skidded a few feet away into the grainy sand and pebbles of the shore, landing near the toes of Jack’s boots.
Jack stooped down to pick it up. “Bad question?”
Eric nodded. “Can we pretend you didn’t ask?”
“Didn’t ask what?” Jack said.
“What?” Eric looked at him for a second, brows raised, until he realized. “Oh! You’re funny. Okay, you have one more question.”
“Great,” Jack said, squatting and handing the soap back over. “Can you help me with a few shots I’m trying to get? I’m not sure I know the terrain yet.”
Eric accepted the soap and balanced it on his palm for a moment, then gave the tiniest of shudders and returned to scrubbing at his shirt. “I’ll help you with your fancy photography project if you help me clean up a little bit.”
Jack reached out to take the shirt from Eric’s hand and potentially save it from his overly vigorous scrubbing. “Cleaning your clothes? I bet we could find a laundromat, you know.”
“You’re a menace,” Eric said. “Cleaning the island, I mean. I do have things that I do around here, you know. Your kind tends to make a mess of my home.”
There’s no bite behind his words, but Jack apologizes anyway. “I’m sorry. I can help. It’s only right that I clean up a little bit, since I’m already invading your territory. And I can help with laundry, too.”
“I don’t mind,” Eric said, quietly, holding his hands back out for his shirt.
Jack handed it back, letting his hands brush against Eric’s as he did so. They were cold from the early-autumn water. “It’s a deal, then.”
Eric flicked a few droplets at him. “Deal, Mr. Zimmermann.”
Jack brought Eric a heavily creamed and sugared coffee the next day, and in return was gifted a warm pink seashell that Eric must have carefully cleaned overnight before placing on the pier. Eric himself was sleepy and soft that morning, eyes heavy as he leaned against the old, weathered wood and watched Jack carefully prepare his camera, occasionally stifling yawns between gulps of coffee. Neither of them said anything for nearly half an hour, which seemed unusual for Eric, who had already proven he could talk for about an hour straight about his favorite pop music icons without much input from Jack.
Jack appreciated that. It was easy to talk to Eric-- maybe because Eric didn’t know anything about his past, or because there was no one else around, or maybe just because something fit and it felt right.
“Okay, I’ve got one,” Jack said, when he was done flipping through his notebook with his plans for the day’s shoot. “A question, I mean."
Eric held up a hand to shush Jack, took one last sip from the last dregs of his coffee, then put his hand down again. “Go on.”
“Do you have some kind of government for-- you know?”
“For merpeople?” Eric made an audible psht sound, button nose scrunching up. “Why would we? There’s not many of us at all anymore.
Jack hummed, and then didn’t ask a second or third question, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know what Eric meant by that, exactly.
And he certainly didn’t want to push him. Jack had already noticed the longing in Eric’s voice when he spoke vaguely and broadly about the others, and he was pretty sure he understood the achy, lonely feeling of having drifted away from your people and into open ocean.
Metaphorically, of course. Jack couldn’t swim.
Instead of talking they both spent the rest of the day getting dirty and scraped up from spending too much time sprawled out on the rocky pebbles where water met shore next to the pier. Jack spread out on his stomach so he could be low enough to get good shots of the birds foraging in the inches-deep water along the shoreline, and Eric floated a few feet out in the water, eyes closed and fingers spread so he could feel the tiniest changes in the rhythm of the waves and warn Jack whenever a big one was coming so he could pull back and protect his camera from getting wet.
They called it a day after one of the waves got a little too close for comfort, licking up Jack’s arms and just barely splattering along the lens. He had yelped, and then Eric had laughed, and when he saw the way the warm sun lit Eric up from the back like a full-body halo, Jack thought:
Jack wasn’t sure how to proceed, so he did nothing, and instead continued to pester Eric about the laundromat that he passed by every day on his drive from his bed and breakfast to the parking lot on the mainland. Eric seemed very grateful for the coffees and pastries he brought from the land, after all, so Jack figured he had no qualms about the creature comforts of modern life.
After a week, Eric finally took Jack up on laundromat offer, which Jack discovered when at the end of a long day of shooting along the shores of the creek that ran haphazardly in sharp curves throughout the island. Eric had stayed with him for part of the day, splashing and singing and teasing him about his increasingly pink sunburn, and then left right as Jack was packing up.
It was abrupt, but not entirely unusual. Eric was a hundred times more attuned to the island than Jack was-- he could hear and feel the water in a way that baffled Jack, and would occasionally disappear to retrieve a piece of trash that had floated in from the ocean, or to investigate some sort of fish behavior that Jack didn’t understand.
Eric returned a few minutes later with something large and translucent in his hands. It wasn’t until he lifted it fully out of the water and deposited it next to Jack’s folded tripod that he saw that it was a waterproof plastic bag full of clothes.
“Warm water, and just let them air dry, please,” Eric said, giving the bag a pat. “I’m sure they’ll be a little tight as is, so I don’t want to risk them shrinking at all.”
“I promise I’ll take good care of them. Should I put them in the bag when they’re done? They might wrinkle,” Jack said. He’d observed the way that Eric tended to frequently check his hair in his reflection in the water, so he had a feeling he might be the type to be neat and tidy about his clothes, too-- if he ever actually wore them.
Eric bit his lip, but nodded.
Jack took the bag, shook off some more water again, and tucked it under his arm as he grabbed his camera bag and his tripod. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Any breakfast requests?”
“Oh!” Eric said, brightening up. “I just remembered that apples are in season. Could you get me a few?”
“Alright,” Jack said. “Clean clothes and some apples. No problem.”
“See you, sweetheart!” Eric said, and just a splash and a blink of an eye later, he was gone, no doubt already several yards away down the creek as he headed back to wherever it was he slept, or maybe out into the open ocean to catch fish dinner, which was something he had not been particularly forthcoming about describing to Jack.
It was early in the evening. The sun was low, but not gone completely, so Jack took his time heading back to the mainland. He had plenty of time to stop by the deli in town to get a sandwich for dinner, which he ate in his car because he wasn’t sure if it was rude or not for him to try to hang out with the locals. After he had finished that and neatly folded up the wax paper and napkins he’d used, he drove a few streets over to the laundromat.
It was empty when he arrived, although two of the machines were rumbling softly, and one of the dryers was shaking violently, but Jack knew that was normal from when he’d visited last week to do his laundry. He headed to the same machine he’d used before-- better safe than sorry, since he wasn’t sure he trusted any of the other decrepit old machines to work-- and set the bag on top of it. When he opened it, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The clothes smelled like ocean salt, which was exactly how Eric smelled when he got close enough to splash Jack.
Was it weird that he’d noticed? Maybe. And it was probably weird that he had also absentmindedly held a shirt up to his nose to take a deep whiff, so he sheepishly dropped it and stuffed it into the machine.
He wished he’d saved his sandwich, since it would have given him something to do. He didn’t have a book in his car, either, so he settled on a bench across the aisle from his machine and scrolled through his Instagram feed on his phone. He only followed his parents, his weird neighbor who was trying to convince Jack that his name was “Shitty,” and a hundred or so other nature photographers, so it was a fairly relaxing feed.
Very relaxing. Relaxing enough that he startled slightly when the machine buzzed to indicate the cycle was complete. He stood up and grunted when his back twinged-- an old sore spot from his days in juniors-- and lumbered over to remove the clothes and put them back into the bag. He’d spread them out to dry better in his room at the B&B, but the bag would have to work for the time being, just to transport them without soaking the backseat of his rental car.
Thankfully, there wasn’t much to stuff into the bag. Just a pair of briefs he was deliberately not taking a closer look at because that would be Weird, Zimmermann, a soft gray polo, a pair of jeans, and two t-shirts.
One was the faded blue one that Eric had been cleaning in the water the second day Jack had spoken to him. The other was maroon, and the front was emblazoned with the words Morgan County High School Class of 2013.
Eric didn’t seem that much younger than Jack. Realistically, that could have been the year he’d graduated high school. But what did that mean? Jack supposed that Eric could have gotten the shirt secondhand, but he had a feeling deep in his gut that it wasn’t true. How had he gotten a hold of so many clothes, anyway? How had he developed a flavored coffee addiction if he’d lived in the ocean his whole life?
What had happened, that made him need to leave wherever he’d been before?
Jack shoved the shirt into the bag. He didn’t want to pry, but he also wanted to know what was in the realm of possibility. He wanted to know Eric’s situation. He wanted to know his future.
“Eric!” Jack yelled from the end of the pier, camera bag slung over his shoulder, a coffee cup in one hand, and the laundry bag in another. “Eric!”
Silence, and the calmness of the early morning water. The sun hadn’t been up for long and it was covered with a layer of low clouds, so the air was still chilly enough that Jack’s breath came out in small, white puffs. He took another cautious step to the very edge of the pier, then backed up when it creaked loudly.
He paused halfway down the pier where the wood was a little less damaged, then waited, watching the horizon. It looked like rain later, maybe, and Jack scowled. He’d recently found a taste for sunlight.
“What’s got you in a fuss?” Eric asked, jerking him out of his concentration. He was swimming alongside the length of the pier toward the shore, which forced Jack to walk back to the shore. “You’re earlier than usual. Coffee?”
Jack stooped down and handed it over, then decided to just sit on the edge of the pier, boots dangling just a few inches above the water. As Eric swung one hand around one of the poles of the pier to keep himself from drifting, Jack opened the bag and took out the shirt on top.
“Did you go here?” Jack asked, unfurling it and holding it out for Eric to see. “I know you didn’t want to talk about-- about not being in the water. But. I want to know. Please?”
Eric looked at Jack for a few moment, brows drawn, eyes wider than usual. They made him look younger, that way. “It’s just not a very nice story.”
“Mine’s not very nice, either,” Jack said, sticking his foot out toward Eric, who latched onto it and pulled himself up so he was pressed against Jack’s thigh, making Jack’s pants a little damp in the process.
He began to play with the zipper of Jack’s windbreaker. “I grew up out here. Well. Down the coast a little bit, but out on the sea. And then when I was ten my parents and I moved inland.”
Eric poked at Jack’s thigh. “I don’t know. A lot of reasons.”
“I want to know.”
Eric’s eyes darkened, pupils widening faster than seemed natural. “Because there wasn’t enough to eat , Jack, and the water was dirty, and they wanted me to have a high school diploma in case I ever wanted to get a job on land. And I don’t know what else. I was a kid when we moved. Everyone was just stressed all the time and I’d never been on land before and it was the worst.”
“Because that wasn’t your world.”
Eric nodded. “I was awful at walking, and I didn’t know how to talk to all the other kids, and I thought the food was weird at first. But I got used to things, eventually. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it sucked. I loved it, though.”
“But it didn’t love you back?” Jack asked, with the tiniest of smirks, thinking of hockey.
“So you can-- change? You can choose to, if you want?”
“It’s a choice, but not just any time at all that we want. It’s more of a choice we make when we need.”
“And you chose to came back,” Jack said.
Eric hummed, and took Jack’s hand in his own and plopped it down on the crown of his own head, then looked up at Jack expectantly. Jack began to play with Eric’s hair, because he had to, of course. It was drying quickly and wavy with sea salt. “I had to,” he said quietly after a minute or so, eyes closed. “They hurt me, and my parents wanted me to toughen up and keep trying, and it just wasn’t worth it. We had this awful fight and then I came here, and this was good. This was safe.”
Jack watched him, completely vulnerable under his hand, and wondered what this was. “I guess I wouldn’t trust people after that,” he said, reaching to wipe a tear off of Eric’s cheek. He wasn’t sure when he’d started crying. “I wouldn’t trust some clumsy photographer who doesn’t know how to swim.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t,” Eric said. “But I suppose I’ve always had a weak spot for sweet boys.”
Jack smiled at him. The distance was suddenly very unbearable, and he offered Eric a hand. Eric took it and reeled back a tiny bit before he heaved himself up out of the water and onto the pier. Jack scooted backward so that Eric would have room to lean into his lap and rest his head on Jack’s chest, eyes closed, just a few water droplets remaining on his eyelashes. He was so beautiful, Jack thought, that he looked like a painting.
Eric rested there for a moment, then wiped at his eyes and gave a little half-chuckle, half-sob. “Jack, honey?”
“Was it really the shirt that gave it away?” he asked, rubbing his thumb along a few specks of sand that had found their way to Jack’s collarbone somehow.
“Yes? It had the school name on it.”
Again, Eric giggled, and pressed his sun-warmed face against Jack’s chest. “Sweetheart, there were pants in my laundry.”
Jack felt his own chest rumble with a warm laugh, and when Eric opened his eyes, he found that he had somehow leaned in without meaning to, and their faces were only inches apart. Eric’s eyes were aimed low, trained on Jack’s lips, and for a moment they were frozen.
Then they both pulled away, just a few inches, but it felt like miles.
Jack was afraid, so he did what he was good at-- he hid behind his camera, reaching to scoop it out of his bag and pop off the lens cap and aim it at Eric, framing it so he was only visible from the waist up. Eric gave a quiet, pleased shriek and held up his hands as he broke out into a laugh. “Oh, you’re the worst. I haven’t even done my hair!”
The shutter sounded, and Jack pulled back and looked at the photo. It was perfect because Eric was perfect, and he smiled down at it as he fit the cap back on the lens, then returned the camera to the case and put his hands back in Eric’s hair.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll tell somebody?” Jack said. The moment had vanished.
“Oh, bless your heart,” Eric said. His eyes were already closed-- an involuntary reaction when Jack had his hands in his hair, it seemed. “Silly man. You’re lucky you’re pretty.”
“Do you really think anyone would believe you?” he said, almost haughty, as he opened his eyes again and raised his brows at Jack.
It was then that Jack understood that this would come to an end, and soon. His last day on the island was tomorrow, after all, and how could he ask Eric to go back to a world that had mistreated him, when he had a refuge here? Jack would leave, and he would have nothing to remember it by, other than a few seashells and a full portfolio of bird photos.
Well. One photo of Eric.
Maybe that was all Jack deserved. All that he could afford to keep of Eric, without sacrificing his freedom.
A lonely freedom-- but still freedom. Freedom not too different from an empty apartment in Providence, and no one there to greet Jack upon his return, and no pressure to do anything but take photos and go on runs on repeat, ad infinitum.
Jack felt his face fall, but he knew that was how things had to be. He gave Eric’s head a final pat. “Alright, bud,” he said. “I have to get to shooting. I need to wrap things up.”
“Of course,” Eric said, slipping back into the water immediately. Jack felt himself reaching out as he left, already missing the warm weight of him. He disappeared for a moment under the surface, then bobbed back up, hair slicked back and eyes darkened, already covered with the filmy second eyelid that helped him see underwater. “I can’t stay,” he said, voice weirdly hoarse.
“What? It’s my last day,” Jack said.
“I know. It was nice getting to know you, sweetheart, but I really need to go. I hope the magazine likes your photos. They’re beautiful.”
And then he was gone, and Jack was alone with the cold air and the gray sky.
“Thank you,” Jack said, to the ocean, wishing Eric didn’t have to go where Jack could not follow. “I’ll miss you too.”
The moment Jack stepped outside of his B&B with his suitcase and camera bag the next morning, he knew it would be an awful day. He’d barely slept, so he was groggy in a way that no amount of coffee could help, and the high humidity outside was giving him the worst kind of headache. It was also chillier than it had been for the past two weeks-- a sign of the weather starting to turn colder. He shivered in his windbreaker and cranked the heat of his rental car higher than he normally would.
He bumped the radio volume up to drown out the sound of the heat running until a familiar female singer’s voice came on over the radio, and then he’d twisted the volume knob with one shaking hand until he was sitting in silence, and he drove all the way up to Savannah like that.
When he arrived he went through the process of returning the rental in a daze of sorts, only feeling bad for a moment when he realized that he hadn’t said a word to the cheery rental station attendant who’d helped him. Was he always such an asshole?
Of course, he forgot about his own stewing frustration for a few moments when he entered the airport proper and found himself caught up in the buzz of way too many people for how early in the morning it was. Over the course of five minutes he was jostled no less than seven times, and each point of contact made his spine hunch over a bit more. By the time he found the security line he could feel his shoulders shaking almost violently.
The two coffees he’d picked up on his way to the airport were maybe, possibly, a bad idea.
The line inched forward and Jack. Didn’t. Move.
He felt paralyzed. The air inside the building was stuffy and still and the whole airport was hot enough that he was sweating hard enough that he’d have spots under his arms soon. He looked down at his camera bag (he carried it as his on-flight personal item because he didn’t trust that it wouldn’t get jostled down below in the cargo) and willed himself to pick it up and move forward.
There was a weird bulge in the side pocket that he usually kept empty.
Instead of picking up the bag and stepping forward, Jack reached into the pocket. Inside was a seashell, pale pink and polished smooth by the water and Eric’s gentle, caring hands.
From behind him, someone loudly and violently cleared their throat.He turned around in the security line to find a very old woman with approximately a dozen suitcases and bags with her, and worst of all, a very tiny dog in a bow tucked into her purse.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. He nodded politely to the dog as he slung his camera bag over his shoulder as he squeezed by and ducked under the line divider before sprinting to the door.
Outside, the air was almost humming with electricity and uneven gusts of wind. The smaller breezes were just mildly chilly; the larger ones would probably blow the small dog away. He needed to get to the shore before the storm hit and Eric sought cover elsewhere.
“Taxi,” he said, to no one but the crackling, restless air and himself. It seemed like the outside of the airport had cleared out, though, with everyone headed inside to take refuge from the imminent storm. “Taxi,” he repeated, as if this would resolve the issue.
“Dude,” a young woman, likely college-aged, said. “Are you living in the 80s? It’s 2019. Get an Uber.”
Right. Jack nodded at her in thanks, then took out his phone and ordered one; when a man in the silver Corolla with the correct license plate number pulled up a few minutes later, he shook his head at Jack and complained that the island was too far out of his range.
“You really sure you want to head out to the coast? There’s a bad storm brewin’,” the man said, as if Jack did not have eyes or the ability to make critical thinking skills involving weather.
Jack told him what the tip would be, and the man clammed up and was even so kind as to throw Jack’s bag in the trunk for him and offer him a stick of gum. Jack took it, just to have something to do with his mouth, because otherwise he was pretty sure he would very annoyingly spend the entire drive asking the man to go faster.
The drive, normally an hour, took half that. It helped that there were hardly any other cars on the road, but Jack tipped the driver twice what he’d originally said anyway, because the man didn’t ask too many questions and Jack appreciated that. He also appreciated that the sky had held back the storm up until he stepped out of the car and retrieved his camera bag.
He closed the trunk and the driver zipped off. A moment later, the whole world broke open, and Jack found himself soaked down to the skin in the pouring rain. Thank goodness his bag was waterproof. He didn’t have his raincoat or anything else to protect him from the sheets of rain that were now lashing down violently against him, so he leaned into it, gritted his teeth, and pressed onward from the road into the wildlife area, and then over the rickety bridge and onto the island.
Eric spent a lot of his time in the creek that ran through the entire island, so Jack found its nearest tributary and followed it to the main water, which was already starting to bubble angrily with the excess water. It did not look like it would be very forgiving if he slipped and fell in, so he stayed a foot or two away and called out, “Eric!”
Eric didn’t answer. Jack inched closer to the bank of the creek and peered down, but the water was cloudy with movement and mud, and the sky was dark enough from the heavy, roiling thunderclouds that it didn’t give him much light to start with. But there were more nooks and crannies where Eric could be hiding out, so Jack spent the next thirty minutes walking the length of the creek, calling out until his voice grew hoarse and shaky from the cold and he was shivering more and more with every step.
Then he came to the end of the creek, which was the open ocean, looking less like the calm water he was used to and more like a death sentence, foaming and breaking and ravinously lapping at the shoreline.
Eric was out there, maybe. This was Jack’s last chance.
He dropped his camera bag by the shore and charged outward onto the pier, which immediately proved itself far too slippery to run on. The old wood was treacherously slick with the rain, so Jack slowed his pace to a moderate clip and strode out to the edge, where he would have the best view of the water, and where he would be most visible to anyone below the surface.
He wasn’t the most eloquent, but he needed to tell Eric how he felt now. He cleared his throat and took his place at the very end of the dock. “Eric,” he called out, doing his best to project, although between the wind and the pounding of the rain it felt like his voice was being sucked away into nothing. “Eric, I came to tell you that--”
And then the pier, creaking under his weight and the downpour, gave out.
Maybe, on a better day when Jack was prepared and not wearing heavy boots, and when the water was calm, instinct would have kicked in and he would have figured out how to stay afloat. But it didn’t. Instead, Jack sank. For a moment or two he foolishly thrashed around as if that would do something to change his fate, but the cold seeped into his bones fast enough, and he’d caught a chestful of water when he’d fallen, and he was starting to feel dizzy from lack of oxygen.
So he closed his eyes, and for his last few moments, tried to enjoy Eric’s world.
Chapter 3: Part Three
Things were still and he was dry.
Jack knew where he was the moment he woke up because he’d done this before.
Well. Not the nearly drowning thing, but the waking up in a hospital part. The feeling of an IV in his arm and the papery sheets were not unusual, but the ache in his throat and chest and the intense, concentrated heat on his lap were not. The confusion was also familiar-- he remembered the burn in his lungs, and he remembered losing feeling in his limbs, but not much more than that.
Which meant he had to figure out what had happened. He had to get out of his hospital and find Eric, so he put herculean effort into opening his eyes and lifting his head an inch to take stock of the situation.
He had the correct amount of arms and legs, and what seemed like the right number of fingers and toes, although he didn’t count them exactly. The warmth was emanating from a heated blanket tucked on top of him, and that was definitely a perk that he hadn’t had the last time he was in a hospital. He smoothed his hands over it and marveled at how threateningly quiet the entire room was, besides the gentle beeping of the machines he was hooked up to.
He looked up to check his vitals, and that’s when he saw him.
Eric was sat in the armchair next to the bed, looking like he’d come from an entirely different world. Where the room was white and clinically clean, Eric was wind-tousled and pink-cheeked, clothes rumpled and still drying in some spots. Jack was fairly certain he could see a speck of seaweed in his hair.
Below his torso, he had legs. Legs that were in hidden in jeans, but looked solid and real.
Jack squinted. Maybe he’d lost some brain cells when he’d been deprived of oxygen, and Eric sitting next to his bed was some sort of hallucination.
Eric was dozing, but something about Jack sitting straight up in bed seemed to trigger a nurse entering the room, and Jack forced himself to look away from Eric to smile at the woman.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Zimmermann!” The nurse said, taking a clipboard and stepping up to Jack’s monitor to make some notes. “Glad to see you awake. I’m going to send the doctor in just a few, so you just rest up until then.”
The noise startled Eric awake again, and Jack saw him stiffen up and do his own self-check that consisted of moving his legs back and forth before he finally properly awakened.
His eyes found Jack’s instantly, and Jack smiled, and then Eric turned into a hurricane of noise and movement.
“Jack! Sweetheart, how are you feeling?” He sprang to his feet before Jack could even react, and immediately set to pacing back and forth at his bedside. “You were shivering so hard, poor thing. We can move the blanket to cover you a bit more if you need, or I can probably get you another one. Do you need any water? How’s your head?”
Jack blinked. “Legs,” he said, blankly, voice hoarse, still feeling very waterlogged.
The nurse turned and raised her brow. “What was that?”
Oh. Right. “Water?” he asked. Nice save, Zimmermann.
“I’ll go get you some,” the nurse said, and then left them, thankfully, alone.
“You ridiculous man,” Eric said when she had closed the door. “You’re not subtle at all, you know that?”
“I don’t care about being subtle,” Jack said. “How are you here? Also, I love you.”
“Well, I couldn’t just leave you there! You needed a hospital, and I was already feeling awful about how we’d left things, and I was thinking about how much I missed driving and dogs and how maybe it was time to give the land another shot and-- I’m sorry, what did you say?”
There were a few beats of silence as Eric finally stopped pacing at put his hands on the railing at the edge of Jack’s bad. For once, he was absolutely speechless. Jack felt almost smug about that.
“I do,” Jack said, a moment later. “I came back to tell you.”
“I love you too,” Eric said, quieter than he’d been before, like he was telling a secret. The best kind of secret.
“You gave up the ocean,” Jack said. “After everything you’ve been through. Is that a good decision?”
“You’re worth trying for,” Eric said. “And I’ve heard Providence has some nice beaches, anyway.”
Eric rolled his eyes. “I’ll survive, Mr. Canada. How are you feeling, really?”
“I feel like I like those jeans,” Jack said.
“They’re awful tight,” Eric said, turning slightly “I can’t tell if that’s because I bought them when I was fifteen, or if I’m just not used to wearing anything down there.”
“I’ll buy you as many jeans as you want,” Jack said, although he definitely did not mind tightness in any way.
“You shush. You’re not gonna be my sugar daddy. So we’re really doing this? You’re all in?” Eric said, and something about his big eyes almost broke Jack’s heart again right there. How could Eric think otherwise?
“All in,” Jack said. “I’ll find a place on the water. You can swim every day.”
“Goodness. How did little old me find the perfect man?”
“You’re perfect,” Jack said. “Although, technically, you have migratory birds to thank.”
“How romantic,” Eric said, drily.
Jack just grinned, and then Eric was leaning, and then they were both leaning, and they were kissing. Eric tasted warm and salty, and Jack couldn’t get enough of it.
His lungs, however, had their fill very quickly and he had to pull away to cough into his arm for a few seconds. Eric reached over and patted his back until his breathing had evened out, and Jack smiled back up at him and leaned over the side of the bed so he could press a kiss to Eric’s hand, since it was the nearest body part.
As he did so, he caught sight of Eric’s feet.
What a weird world this was. A weird world that had somehow brought them together, despite all the odds working against them. Jack could never give that up.
He chuckled and hooked his arm around Eric’s waist to pull him close, then quietly spoke into his shirt: “You know, when we get out of here, you’re going to have to teach me how to swim.”