This story is by Elise Mumert and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Once the supper dishes are dried and put away, Simon grabs the covered plate and heads outside.
The humid cove is quiet except for the patrolling military vessels. In the fading twilight Simon easily avoids searchlights thrown onto the sand, padding beyond them on bare feet.
His distinctly green toes dip into the shallows. Simon keeps his eyes on the sky as he slips down to sit with submerged feet. The thin slits in his feet’s horny soles open up. He feels as if he is able to draw deep breaths for the first time today.
He puts her dinner down on the sand and inches it close to the water. He shifts and lies back.
For years now the black sky has been too thickly polluted to see the stars on the West Coast, but he remembers what they used to look like. He remembers Aubrey humming Star-Spangled Banner beside him and pointing out constellations.
He remains there in silence until his feet freeze.
“It’s fine, Aubrey,” he whispers into the sluggish dark. “You can eat it by yourself.” I’ll be back tomorrow.
Simon met Aubrey while browsing the fruit aisle two years ago. He moved in beside her and reached out to grab a peach (plastic-wrapped to reduce the risk of contamination). He liked the way she didn’t seem to notice that her dark hair had slipped out from behind her ears and into her eyes.
Aubrey had suddenly plucked one out and handed it to him. “That’s a good one,” she offered. “Not too big.”
When he got back onshore after four months of texting, they moved in together.
He found out that Aubrey rarely put away laundry. She slept in while Simon blinked awake at dawn. To Aubrey, it felt wrong to sit with someone and not fill their ears with chatter. To Simon, in silence was the only polite way to sit.
It was during Aubrey’s lifeguard shifts at the beach that Simon snatched his hours of quiet. Then she would rattle in, aflame about some rude tourist or incredible sea creature she had seen. Every day more deformed flotsam, both living and dead, was washing up from the ocean.
Forgotten bobby pins lingered in Aubrey’s hair, and Simon would have a bit of flour on his cheek. He pulled out the pins and she wiped his face, and they fell in love again.
It wasn’t until six months after they met that Simon was infected. He was checking traps on a crabbing boat. Simon remembers everything about that job.
The sun had seared Simon as he crouched at the boat rail, waiting to grab hold of the trap as the first mate hauled it up. The rope rasped wetly against the boat’s edge. Simon’s hands had grown so sweaty that he had slipped off his protective gloves before reaching to pull the trap over the edge of the boat and onto the deck. Stupid. It wasn’t until he put his bare hand in the cage to count the crabs that Simon saw their unusual color. Grey, pure grey.
One creature opened its four eyes and started babbling in a quiet voice.
The first mate backed away and ran towards the captain’s cabin. Simon recalls staring at his hand. He remembers watching as the toxic slime oozed into the scratches and cracks of his fisherman’s fingers.
Aubrey’s wide eyes were the first things Simon saw when he regained consciousness after the incident. She was swathed in a bio-protective suit and a face-mask, like she was headed out on one of the buses to work in the pestilential fields with addled immigrants.
Simon felt like he wore sodden mittens. The air no longer held the oxygen his lungs needed. He pushed himself up slowly from the bed and reached towards Aubrey. She shrank away. He saw that his hands were scaly and streaked with sickly green and blue. They looked like they belonged to an addict, or a corpse.
“I’m sorry,” he croaked. He folded them away under the hospital sheets.
“I don’t care, it doesn’t matter.”
“Yes, it does.”
“Well,” Aubrey whispered, “then I’m sorry.” Her neoprene gloves rubbed awkwardly against her thighs.
He had no memory of leaving the crabbing boat, but a lump throbbed sharply above Simon’s ear where a crew-mate had swung an oar at him. Simon closed his eyes and saw again his captain hefting the ship’s rifle.
That one image stood out. While Simon frantically wiped his burning hands (on the nets, his clothes, the deck, anything, anything, to stop the pain), his captain had kept the rifle’s sight against his eye and calmly tracked Simon’s head as he thrashed.
Meanwhile, the crabs had fallen back into the sea, their babbling silenced when a jittery crew member cut the rope holding them aloft.
The next morning they left the hospital without being discharged, trying to avoid the soldiers who would take Simon away.
They crushed their cell phones under their tires in the parking lot. On the way home Aubrey loaded up the car with crates of cans and dehydrated meals. The next day she drove the car off into the swampy weeds along the miles of deserted Washington coastline and left it there, hitchhiking back.
A few weeks went by in a slow haze. They stayed on the couch, straining for the sounds of feet sinking through the sand outside their door.
Happiness and sadness seemed to be the same emotion now. This new feeling pooled in Simon’s chest as they fell asleep tangled together. Sometimes he thought he should make Aubrey keep her distance. But there didn’t seem to be any point now.
A month passed before they felt safe to walk outside at night. Then they discovered that shoes made Simon feel like he was dying, his feet gasping for air. The soles of his feet quickly became rough and callused, and Aubrey tickled the edges of the gills appearing on them.
Aubrey started vomiting.
They both got skinnier and paler, despite the sun blazing through the windows. They swam in the cove at night, cool water soothing their blistered limbs and sluicing off their peeling skin.
Simon still felt a constant aching nausea. But it hurt less when they lay down together in the tall beach grass, forehead to forehead. They felt safer there than in the bungalow when the boats came drifting along the shore, looking for changelings.
Two months after she began changing, Aubrey stopped being able to take a deep breath. Her frantic shallow gasps filled Simon’s ears as her hair fell out in black clumps around the kitchen.
How could she have deteriorated so fast without him noticing? Simon stopped feeling his own raw skin. He felt as if he haunted the cottage, lingering around corners listening to her strangled breaths.
The next day Simon had been following the whimpering Aubrey around the house, trying to rub her back. She suddenly batted his hands away and scrambled out the door, tripping in the sand.
Left alone, Simon slammed his hands against the doorjamb. The little webs that had begun to grow recently between his rough fingers ripped and bled. He imagined pressing pillows down on Aubrey’s face, letting them both rest.
The distant sound of splashing made Simon forget this desperate thought and rush after her, the screen door clapping loudly behind him.
He skidded to the edge of the cove just in time to see Aubrey’s tiny ripples fade and vanish. He stood there, listening to the horns of the boats bellowing from the open sea, getting nearer.
He picked up her discarded baggy tunic and trudged back alone.
This morning, he returns with tea in a Thermos. He wades right in to watch the sunrise over the cove’s entrance and listen to gulls. He feels refreshed, oxygen from the waves rushing in through his feet. Putting his feet in the water always feels as if he can finally breathe fully. It’s been a year since Aubrey disappeared, and every day it gets harder to return to the bungalow alone.
He sits beside Aubrey’s licked-clean plate. Ripples and a sandy cloud announce her approach. Sipping his tea, Simon smiles as she traces his feet, teasing and tickling.
“Feeling better? You were in such a mood last night.”
Simon speaks for the both of them now. Just a little. He never knows if she can hear him.
The boats drone past, nets trailing behind. Simon can just make out the plastic-swathed figures. Even at a distance he could make out the cruel guns held casually as the soldiers wandered on deck.
Aubrey’s fingers stroke his toes lazily as she curls in the mud below him.
He has so many questions. What do you do during the long daylight hours? Why can’t I see your face? Do you hate me? Are your eyes still brown?
In the distance he hears guns go off.