Most of the others have not adapted as well as I have. Oh, we’re all equal now, rooted and still — what is there to fight about? — but the boy next to me is in pain, he keeps craning his neck up to see the sky, and I want to say to him: be still. Turn to stone.
The tide is low, crabs and all manner of small creatures crawling through the water, and all around me people are blinking salt water from their eyes and remembering what it’s like to breathe air. A volunteer from the Red Cross hurries my way with food and fresh water; just the sight of it makes me want to retch.
“She’s far gone, man,” the boy-thing next to me says, and then he says, “fuck,” with a sharp kind of despair. The Red Cross volunteer is carding their gloved fingers through my hair, picking out the worst tangles. They pluck up a little squirming creature and flick it back into the water.
On the shore, a big movie-theatre-type projector is playing a rerun of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. It’s pretty funny, right, that what most of these people miss most about being landbound is television. Their families visit, when they can, and bring stereotypical things: favorite foods, pets, children. Books for those who still have the ability to move their hands. But rooting to a rock can be boring, especially in those quiet hours where the tide slicks up around our necks. Most people can’t be alone with their thoughts that long.
They’re not trying to rescue us anymore. It’s all palliative care, making sure we’re comfortable and happy before we lose ourselves completely. The president came out last week and gave a teddy bear to a kid whose whole body was nearly calcified. Just tucked it into one of his branching arms and smiled for the cameras.
There’s nothing I need, of course. Only for the change to happen faster, so I can no longer turn my head to face the shore.
The Red Cross volunteer finishes picking through my hair and gathers their kit to leave. They look to the boy-thing beside me and say, with terrible pity, “Is there anything I can get for you?”
“Get me a chainsaw and cut me off this rock,” he says.
The volunteer’s not sure whether to laugh or not. They titter and touch him on the shoulder, and their face behind the window of the protective suit is obscured by salt-scum and little scratches on the plastic. Practically as inhuman as I am.
The volunteers work all low tide, going to everyone in turn and touching them, talking to them, helping them remember what it is to be human. The press calls us mille-people — I’ve seen it on the news, whenever they can be convinced to turn the projector off Bravo or HGTV or ESPN. Because we branch like fire corals, because our skeletal outer skin conceals little stinging tentacles that burn on contact.
“Don’t tell me you’re fine with this,” the boy-thing says. “Don’t tell me you chose this.”
I say, “Didn’t you?” because maybe it wasn’t a choice like deciding where to drive the camper on a family vacation, but it was a choice all the same. A kind of calling, a salt tang in my mouth.
“No,” he says, and then, “I don’t remember. I don’t remember any of it. It felt like being high for days, and then I come down, and I’m here on this rock next to you, and my feet won’t move anymore.”
There’s a little edge of hysteria to his voice, so I say shhhhhh in my most soothing tone and watch the vans drive off the beach as the tide laps back in.
“I wanted to travel,” he says. “I wanted to get my fucking degree and some stupid office job and marry this girl and have like twelve babies. Just normal things. I was never ambitious. I just wanted normal things.”
“You’ll travel,” I say with serenity. Poor kid — he’s too upset to feel it. “You’ll have a thousand babies, and they’ll go all over the world. Don’t you know?”
He’s blinking at me, slow and stupid. Not his fault — the planes of his face have started to harden. Poor thing, too busy trying to be human to appreciate what he is now.
“Look down,” I say.
He looks down. In the swell of the tide, it’s easy to see them swimming — little medusae, tiny little carbon copies that will be carried along the current to other places, quieter and less crowded. They will find their home and anchor down. On a rock or perhaps in the mouth of an incautious swimmer. I don’t know. I don’t know how these things work. All I know is this swelling sensation in my ampullae, this feeling of potential. The little baby-thing the Red Cross volunteer had plucked from my hair.
My old life is starting to slip away, piece by piece — I’d traveled a lot, sometimes lived in my car, shifted from job to job. It’s not important now, and so I can forget it. Now I’m part of something bigger. There’s no more running. Finally, I have found a place I can rest.
On the projector screen, a woman is drinking wine and laughing a shrill, unhappy laugh. Next to me, the boy-thing says, “Holy shit. Does the Red Cross know about this? Or, like, the police?”
“Shhh,” I tell him again, and I watch the babies swimming, vanishing between clumps of seaweed and silt and old garbage. It’s beautiful to watch — our little clones so at home in the water. Until they, too, find a place to rest.
We’ll go so far, all of us. No matter what things were like before — oh, we’ll go so very far.
© 2016 Shannon Peavey