This story is by DJ Curtis and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
She’s in quite the predicament. Body cramped with her knees drawn to her chest and elbows digging into her thighs, the grains of seed she’s sitting on probably leaving permanent indents in her backside. Inside the confines of the barrel, her shallow breathing and the rapid thud of her heart is amplified. It pounds against her constricted ribcage, calling a name with each beat: Ana, Ana, Ana. Where is Ana?
At first Evelyn refused to entertain the notion that Ana may have lied. It had been easier when her father shoved potential marriage contracts into her face, when her mother laced her up in her old wedding gown and insisted she’d make a fine wife if she’d only stop being so difficult. Evelyn would shout and storm off and find Ana in her usual market stall near the port. They made their plans together—to steal away aboard a ship and sail into the sunset where no one could ever force them into unnatural lives they could not stomach.
She can’t blame this all on Ana, though. Ana didn’t force her to leave her parents as she did. She’d snuck out the window with a rucksack and a stolen dress, not even sparing so much as a backwards glance at her parents, leaving them without a hope for even affording another meal. She doesn’t regret taking the step to free herself of the life they expected for her—but she didn’t have to leave them with nothing.
Now here she is, and this is her comeuppance. She’d skulked around the docks waiting for Ana, who never showed. When the crew was down to their last bit of supplies to stock Evelyn had panicked, scrambled up the ramp onto the deck and dove into a barrel full of seed to hide. Now she’s trapped alone on a ship full of pirates, and she’ll presumably be dead by morning. Her parents’ demise wouldn’t be as quick, but it was just as certain. Her recklessness doomed the three of them.
Evelyn wets her dry lips and takes a shaky breath, struggling to steady her breathing. She tucks her bottom lip beneath her teeth to stop it from trembling, squeezes her eyes shut and tips her head back, fingers digging into the coarse wood. Betrayal tastes dry and bitter on her tongue. The truth is, she’s more upset about Ana’s abandonment than guilty about deserting her parents, and she hates herself for that. Anger bubbles dangerously in the pit of her stomach. She clenches her hands into fists so many times her nails dig half-moons into her palms. She is alone with nothing but her anger now. She’d tried to run away but here she is and it’s the exact scenario she’s been in her whole life.
Hours pass and she eventually slips into sleep, breathing evening out in time with the waves rocking the ship. All too soon, the lid to her barrel is abruptly lifted and she wakes with a start. Pain spikes in her temples as sunlight spills in. She squints and screws her face up, elbow scraping against the side of the barrel when she tries to pull her arms free to shield herself, forgetting how tightly she’s wedged inside. Her eyes adjust and she finds herself looking up at a young man with skin like leather, droplets of sweat clinging to the sparse hairs of his gristly mustache. For a moment, they simply stare at each other, frozen in place.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he finally says in a low voice. “Women are bad luck aboard ships, you’ll curse our voyage. They’ll throw you over to drown.”
Evelyn fights to keep her expression devoid of the fury swelling within her, knowing showing her anger would only endanger her further- a lesson from her father. “Then don’t let them.” A conflicted shadow crosses his face at her desperate tone. “What if it were someone you cared about? What if it was your sister, or your mother? A daughter?” He looks up and a wave of relief washes over Evelyn at the clear hesitation written across his sunburnt face. “Please. Please help me.”
Finally, the man nods, and Evelyn slumps in relief as resolve strengthens his features.
She’s hauled out of the barrel not long after, kicking and screaming as they raise her into the air. The man watches at first, but when the other men grow louder, rowdy in their triumph in catching a stowaway, he joins in. Her mother’s wedding gown is torn from her with taunts and shouts of laughter, waved overhead like a flag.
“Sorry,” he whispers as he tightens the rope with a bit more care than his crewmates. Evelyn lifts her chin and levels her iciest glare on him. He winces, but she feels no sympathy. She is done pretending all is fair when it’s not. She knows she is not the first woman these pirates have killed; the tragedy is that she may not be the last. These pirates feast on death, ask for it with every gold piece they plunder.
“Hurry it up,” urges the captain, snapping scarred fingers. The men surrounding her finish tightening the ropes and carry her across the deck. The scream catches in her throat when she’s thrown, stomach lurching as she plummets like a stone. The air is knocked from her lungs when she crashes into the icy sea.
It’s so much colder than she anticipates, the pressure around her pushing in like tiny pinpricks that remind her of the sewing needles her mother used to accidentally jab her with while measuring her gowns. By the time her toes drift through the sand, bringing her to a halt, it feels as though she’s been stabbed a thousand times. She opens eyes that sting with the salt water and struggles against her bonds. It’s no use. She has nothing left but prayers to gods she barely believed in- prayers for forgiveness for what she did to her parents, and prayers no woman after her will suffer this way. The world around her darkens. Either the light from the surface is faint or her vision is already clouding black.
And then it isn’t. Gold swims across her vision, gleaming hair that billows in the water, and whatever breath left in her is lost with it. Her head spins with disbelief as a familiar voice cuts through the water.
“What use are empty prayers?” Whispers curl around her, as comforting as they are terrifying. “The gods of the seas are myths. I am a harbinger, and now you are the death they asked for.”
A fingertip presses to Evelyn’s arm, as cold as ice and sharp as nails. It leaves a beat later, but lightning follows it, a strange energy crackling out from the point of contact, tearing through her veins, tingles and sparks snapping all the way to her fingers and toes. The column of her throat aches as the water trapped there seems to boil, as the sides of her neck split and blood stains the water. The rope wrapped around her splits into shreds and when she looks down through the weak light, scales ripple where her legs once were. She inhales, reborn and filled with a purpose she’s never known, and propels to the surface, blood singing with vengeance.
The remains of the ship are left a smoldering ruin that serves as the only light in the black abyss of sky and sea save for the glint of razor-edge teeth and the luster of her tail as Evelyn dives back down into the depths. Then there is gold, followed by a soft-lipped, sharp-toothed smile.
“You,” says Evelyn, bubbles issuing from her mouth. “What are you?”
Ana dips her head slowly in acknowledgement. “Anahita. That is my real name.”
“Anahita,” says Evelyn, tasting it. “You left me.”
“I’m sorry.” Shame creases Ana’s brow. “I didn’t think you would really do it. I thought we were just…dreaming.” The gills on the sides of her neck flex as her chest rises and falls. “I tasted your scent on the sea breeze and followed it here. When I heard your scream and you entered the sea, I knew.”
There is silence as wreckage and debris descend, clouds of sand-dust bursting as glittering gold coins drop like rain. Evelyn pays it no mind, staring at Ana, considering her. “What are you?”
“Alive,” says Ana simply. “Same as you.”
Evelyn glances up at the fire burning at the surface of the water, and then back down at Ana, beautiful and solemn.
“I came back for you,” says Ana, tilting her head, “Does that count for something?”
Evelyn drifts forward, her hand taking Ana’s as their tails entwine. Above, the torn fabric of the wedding gown slowly sinks downward, charred and bloodstained. “It’s everything.”
In the morning, her parents wake to mounds of gold piled haphazardly on Evelyn’s bed, and a seashell neatly nestled upon the folded remains of a ruined dress.