It turns out, as Makoto sinks into the steely blue depths of the ocean, that something really does live in the water. It reaches out for him, circles him with its arms, and as it tugs at his limp body, the only thing running through his mind is that despite the years of fearing this thing, of imagining this malignant threat lurking deep within the waves, he isn’t afraid. Whatever it is that has a hold on him, it doesn’t feel dangerous. In fact, if Makoto’s being honest, he feels okay in this strange embrace. Safe, even.
He always knew, somehow, that he would drown. Whether or not he would die from it, he was never sure, but there had always been that nagging feeling whenever he took his brother and sister swimming, when the ocean would try to bite down on him as he tentatively made his way into the surf. It always felt like he was tempting fate, putting himself directly into the maw of the beast, but if he were to give in to his fear, to remain static beneath it, he knew he wouldn’t be able to live with himself. So, little by little, he forced himself to venture out, to trust the thing he couldn’t turn his back on, and he hoped that, by putting his life in its hands, he might earn its respect, and by extension, its mercy. But he only hoped.
Makoto closes his eyes against the salt sting of the water, and lets himself be taken.
He wakes up with water spewing out of his mouth as he hacks his way back to the world of the living; there’s sand crunching beneath his still-damp skin when he rolls onto his side, his throat burns, and he takes a moment to simply lie there, the hot sun making his skin prickle as it dries into a crust of salt and sweat. His muscles are weak, all of the fight sapped from his struggle with the tide, and they stay motionless, limp like wet noodles. His breathing is ragged, the air rasping through his raw trachea, and his stomach aches, burning on the cusp of nausea.
It takes him a while to register the quiet breathing beside him, the crush of the waves overpowering everything but his ragged breath. He opens his eyes.
Blue, a lot of blue, swimming in front of his eyes as they struggle to focus. He squints, and there’s a face, it’s concerned, and it’s… very close to his.
He yells, falling back and knocking his head against the packed sand. There’s a startled gasp, and then hesitant hands grasping his shoulders as another wave of coughing racks his body. When he opens his eyes for the second time, his vision is clearer, and he makes out the face of a young man, his eyebrows drawn together with worry.
“Wh-who are you?” he manages to gasp out, cringing when he hears how rough his voice sounds.
“Your name is Makoto.”
“The children you were with. That’s what they called you.”
“You saw the twins?”
He hesitates, and that’s when Makoto sees the flash of silver that draws his attention to the dolphin-like tail connected to his lower abdomen.
The young man – merman? – jumps, his face switching from anxious to frightened as Makoto begins to scramble backward. When it shifts to hurt, he stops.
“That – you – what – huh?” Makoto feels like he can’t breathe as he watches, mesmerized, as the tail moves up and down with an easy, almost lazy fluidity. It twitches under his gaze, though, as if he’s making it nervous.
“I…” He looks up, meeting very blue, very round eyes, and the breath goes out of him once more.
Then there’s movement, the tail whips around, and with a splash he’s disappearing into the surf, taking whatever powers of speech Makoto might have garnered with him.
Makoto has completely forgotten the fact that he had been drowning who-knew-how-long before until he finds the flurry of activity waiting for him at the pier. He nearly falls back when the twins glom onto him at a sprint, their crying and yelling coming out as nothing but confused babbling as they cling tighter to his legs.
“We thought you were dead, onii-chan!”
“The big wave went over you and you never came up!”
“I was so scared!”
“I’m sorry I called the lifeguard now that you’re okay!”
That last outburst confuses Makoto for a moment – that is, until he sees the ambulance and crew of EMTs watching from several meters away. “You… what?”
Ran looks up, tears streaming down her face as she wails, “You disappeared and we didn’t know what to do so I made Ren run to the lifeguard and he couldn’t find you so he called the emergency number and the ambulance showed up and we still couldn’t find you and everyone thought you were dead but they couldn’t give up looking because a person has to be gone for a few days to be considered missing and Ren and I knew you weren’t missing you were just hiding somewhere, right?” She takes a deep breath, sobbing, “You were h-hiding from us!”
“There, there,” Makoto croons, kneeling down and taking the twins into his arms. They each fling their bony arms around him, burying their snotty, teary faces into his chest and sobbing even harder. He strokes the back of Ran’s head and rubs Ren’s back reassuringly, murmuring to them that he’s here, he isn’t a ghost, he’s alive, everything will be okay.
He twists his head around, and his mother’s shaking, biting back a sob as she jerkily makes her way over. “I – I got a call from the police station, they s-said something had h-happened to you…” She stops an arm’s length away, watching Makoto as if he might turn to smoke if she touched him. “R-ran and ren were out of their minds with worry, w-we all were – ”
“Mom – ”
He gets cut off when she falls on top of him and the twins, jarring him and nearly causing him to tip over. “Mom, I’m – ” Her hands grip his hair, pulling a little too hard, and Makoto lets her, trying to stay as still as he can as his family comes to terms with his return from the dead.
Finally he’s let go, the twins wipe away the snot with the backs of their hands, and his mother hides her still-trembling mouth behind her clasped hands.
“I’m sorry,” Makoto manages, watching their red-rimmed eyes and remembering blue. “I don’t know what I was thinking…”
“Stupid!” Ran yells, hitting his arm with all the fury her small form can muster. “So stupid!”
Makoto winces sheepishly.
“Ran-chan,” his mother chides, her voice coming out hoarse and a little defeated, “You should be kinder to your brother.”
“Sorry,” she grumbles, looking off to the side in a huff and continuing to sniffle. “He’s still stupid, though.”
“Onii-chan, let’s go home,” Ren says, tugging on Makoto’s other arm. “I want to go home.”
“Of course.” Makoto stands, letting his siblings each take a hand as he walks toward his mother. “I’m sorry,” he repeats, and she just shakes her head, refusing to speak lest the tears make a sudden reappearance.
The EMT crew grumble as they pack off, another false alarm wasting their time, but Makoto’s grateful he doesn’t have to be whisked away to the hospital. He might have, if it hadn’t been for, well –
Makoto tries to push it to the back of his mind, focusing instead on his family. He needs to make sure they’re okay.
“Ah, Mako-chan, Mako-chan!”
Nagisa’s running up the stairs to Makoto’s house, his face lit up with the news he’s just heard.
“Nagisa-kun, slow down!”
“Ah, Rei-chan needs to build more muscle so he can climb the stairs to Mako-chan’s faster!”
Makoto just watches from his front yard with a smile on his face as Rei struggles for a response.
“Mako-chan!” Nagisa stops in front of him, a little breathless, his cheeks flushed from exertion. “You’re not dead!”
“N-no, I’m not…” Makoto laughs nervously, scratching the back of his neck. “You thought I was dead?”
“Of course not!” Nagisa’s grin quickly fades into a conspiratorial glower. “Rei-chan, though, he was convinced – ”
“I was not!”
Makoto laughs. “It’s still good to see you,” he says. “Really.”
“Does Rin-chan know?”
“No, I never got a chance to – ”
“Poor Rin-chan!” Nagisa wails, gripping the front of Makoto’s shirt and sagging in despair. “What if he’s heartbroken? Inconsolable? Suicidal?”
“I’m pretty sure Rin wouldn’t kill himself because I – ”
“Rin-chan cares about Mako-chan a lot,” Nagisa interrupts, suddenly letting go. “He’s been Mako-chan’s best friend since elementary school.”
“He’s been in Australia – ”
“Still your best friend.”
Makoto sighs. There’s no point in arguing when it comes to Nagisa, who continues to babble incessantly as he leads Makoto into his own home.
“…and I barely believed it when Rei-chan texted me and said you were on the news!”
“Wha – I was?”
“You didn’t see it?” Nagisa turns around casually. “They had a story about you. Or, well, more complaining about you, but still. They showed the twins.”
“No one told me about that…”
“It doesn’t matter!” Nagisa chirps as they shed their shoes. “Tell us what happened!”
“Well,” Makoto begins, biting his lip. “I don’t really know where to start.”
“Where were you when it happened?” Rei asks.
“Rei-chan, don’t be stupid!” Nagisa’s voice is harsh, but the lighthearted smile gives him away when Rei jumps, blushing. “He was swimming!”
“I – I meant to say what were you doing!”
“He was swimming – ”
“No, Nagisa, it’s fine,” Makoto says, shooting Rei a reassuring smile. “I was swimming, but it was because I was trying to get back into shape after not swimming for two weeks while I was in Tokyo.”
“Oh, yeah, how was Mako-chan’s trip?”
“I’ll get to it later,” Makoto smiles before becoming serious again. “I had reached the pier when a fairly large wave washed over me, and a few seconds later I just got pulled out by a really strong current. Now that I think about it, it was probably a rip tide,” he adds thoughtfully.
“Was it scary?”
“Y-yeah…” Makoto hesitates. The feeling of being so powerless washes over him as suddenly as it had happened – he remembers not being able to suck in that one final breath before the water swallowed him up, the panic of finding himself utterly helpless as he felt the current clawing at him and dragging him into some nightmarish lair where he was going to die. And it was that certainty, that feeling of dread that crystallized his insides when he realized that he was never going to breathe again, that these were his last moments, full of terror and confusion and I have to see the twins again –
He remembers the moment where his lungs gave out and water flooded his airways, the sick wrongness of it when invisible hands constricted around his throat as he gagged, his mind going fuzzy as he started to give up, to give in to the monstrous ocean…
And then him. Those arms reaching around him, pulling him close and pushing him upward, carrying him to safety –
“And then I woke up on the beach!” He smiles, tilting his head. “I don’t know what happened before that. I think I blacked out or something.”
“You don’t know how you survived?”
Makoto shakes his head, hoping to shake the thoughts of silver fins out of it.
“Oh, maybe it was a mermaid!”
“You know, like in the stories!” Nagisa positively glows as he jumps up and down on the balls of his feet. “That’d be so cool!”
“I – I really don’t think – ”
“He was obviously carried back by another current,” Rei pitches in. “He may not remember, but it’s possible he was able to keep himself afloat while he was being carried out.”
Makoto’s mouth goes dry. “I guess…”
“Aw, Rei-chan, don’t be so boring,” Nagisa moans, pouting. “Don’t ruin the fun!”
“ I’m not ruining anything!”
Makoto turns away as Nagisa dodges a poorly-aimed swat with a laugh and a grin – he’s seen enough of these squabbles to know there’s nothing he can do to stop them.
Not ten minutes after Rei and Nagisa have bid their farewells, Makoto’s phone goes off.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
Makoto smiles. “Hello to you, too.”
“Why didn’t you tell me you drowned? I had to hear it from fucking Nagisa, who was all,” his voice goes up in a bad imitation of Nagisa’s usual excited babble,“‘Rin-chan didn’t hear? Rin-chan didn’t know? Rin-chan must be feeling very betrayed by Mako-chan, huh!’” A tetchy scoff, and then, “You’re such an asshole, putting me through this kind of shit. How dare you.”
“I’m sorry?” Makoto scratches the back of his neck. “I guess I wasn’t sure if you’d have been practicing or not. I probably should’ve mailed you, though. Sorry.”
Rin’s sigh crackles over the line. “Whatever, dude. At least you’re not dead. Which is a surprise, since you’ve really let yourself go these last few months. I’m disappointed in you, Mako.”
“Not everyone has aspirations as grand as the Olympics, you know,” Makoto chides.
Another scoff. “You’re selling yourself short. We’d totally be able to do the relay if you hadn’t given up on competing.”
“It was no fun after you left.”
“It’s a good thing you’re not here, actually,” Makoto teases.
“And why is that?”
“If the twins heard you swearing as much as you do, my mother would never forgive me for bringing in such a corrupting influence.”
“When have I ever corrupted anyone? I’m a fucking saint.” Makoto can hear the humor in his voice, though, and laughs.
“You’d be the patron saint of swimming.”
“Damn straight. And your mom loves me. Loves me.”
“That’s because she remembers nice twelve year-old you and has no idea how messed up you’ve become.”
“Australia changes people.”
Makoto laughs. “Right.” They grow quiet, and when Makoto pipes up with “Nagisa wanted to know – ” Rin says, “I’m really glad you’re not rotting away in some killer whale stomach right now.”
Makoto gasps. “Rin, do you really feel that way?”
He can practically see the angry, confused look pass over Rin’s face as he realizes just how sentimental he’s been. “Fuck no, you would have deserved it for being so stupid!”
Makoto’s smiling, though. “I’m sorry I made you worry.”
“Oh, my God, no, Makoto, don’t start this – ”
“I’ll be more careful next time.”
Rin hesitates. “Good.” Makoto allows his smile to stretch into a grin, heartened to know his friend still has a heart.
“What were you asking when I made a complete ass of myself?”
“Oh, that.” Makoto chuckles. “Nagisa wanted to know if you’ve seen how koalas have sex yet.”
Rin’s answering groan of frustration sets off a fresh wave of static that forces Makoto to hold the phone away from his ear for a few seconds.
The house is too quiet when Makoto finally hangs up, the twins having gone to bed something around an hour ago. He sighs, leaning back in the chair at his desk and studying the dim ceiling. He feels weird, the disconnect he’s been experiencing with everyone around him making his head ache. All of the reactions to his… accident have left him unsettled, almost guilty – like he should be more worried about what happened, more afraid since the fear that’s been wrapped around his heart since childhood has finally been realized. Makoto can tell how his blithe assertions that he’s okay are affecting his friends and family – he’s seen the way their eyes tighten, the way the smiles freeze onto their faces as they begin to wonder how scarred Makoto must be despite his appearances. Except he isn’t. He’s perfectly fine, perfectly sane, perfectly safe.
There’s always the possibility he imagined it. Maybe all the saltwater he’d swallowed had made him hallucinate. Maybe he’d just been so exhausted his mind played a trick on him.
Makoto had never thought himself to be the kind of person to believe in anything fantastic. When he was smaller, sure, it was always cool, if a little terrifying at times, to imagine a world beyond his knowledge, but now, with him nearing his third year of high school, Makoto simply doesn’t have the time. He isn’t Nagisa, who somehow managed to escape disenchantment and the general sense of cynicism that comes with growing up. And Makoto wouldn’t necessarily call himself a cynic, not exactly – he’s always considered himself quite the optimist, actually – but there’s still the nagging feeling that he’s been left weak by his education, the crutch of cool logic and human reason not enough to support any of the questions currently clogging Makoto’s head. Questions like If I touched his tail, would it be warm?
He sighs, looking out the window to the sliver of ocean visible between the neighboring buildings.
Is he there? Right now?
Without thinking, he’s standing up, finding his shoes, and grabbing his phone – he may be acting in a haze, but there’s still enough clarity to understand that he shouldn’t be completely alone if he were to find himself in an emergency situation.
His parents have already retired to their room, reading side-by-side in their bed. Makoto hasn’t snuck out since that time Rin was visiting and insisted he carry out an act of teenaged rebellion at least once in his pathetically domestic life, but he remembers enough that no one’s chasing him down the stairs as he makes his way down to the shore.