I run my fingers tentatively over the rough outer edges, my face almost touching the mirror. Folding back semi-rigid slits, I examine the tender pink tissues penetrating both sides of my neck. No question about it: These are serious gills.
I first noticed them yesterday, on my day off. Shaken, I paced the floor for a couple hours before checking out Wikipedia. I learned that gills are a common feature of aquatic organisms. Fish have them. Some amphibians do. They extract oxygen from water and eliminate carbon dioxide. I suppose they could come in handy, like when you go swimming. Maybe it’s not the end of the world.
But why now? Thursday is the evening that Liz comes by the restaurant for the vegetarian omelette, washing it down with decaf coffee and leaving me a decent tip. I finally decided that today is the day I am going to ask her out, on a real date. How many times have I pictured myself cruising in her sleek silver BMW convertible, with the top down and the wind blowing through her gorgeous shoulder-length red hair.
And there’s this other problem: I’m a couple inches shorter than her and working on a beer gut. As for waiting tables at IHOP, I can explain that I have greater aspirations, that I earned a degree in hospitality management, after all. Maybe she can overlook the fact that I spend most of my spare time in my tiny man cave watching episodes of “Lost” over and over. And perhaps she won’t mind that I don’t have a stereo or a bar–just a second-hand couch, a flat screen, and a few old pictures, like the one of me at about age six standing in front of the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica pier.
Yeah, Sal, you’re a real prize. And now you have gills on your neck.
I rub myself down with skin cream, cram two tubes of it into my pockets, and rummage through the bottom of my closet. I dig out a black turtleneck sweater, a gift from my ex-girlfriend. Not exactly my style, but it does cover most of my gills. I finish dressing, grab my keys, and head out.
I’m five blocks from home and already I’m running late for work. It seems like there’s a fender bender at every other intersection. What’s wrong with you people?
I jog from my Prius to the front door. Gabriella is filing her nails and barely looks up from the reception desk as I rush by to get my apron and name tag. My asshole boss Crusty still hasn’t fixed the ceiling fan over my section. I bet he disabled it to save a few pennies on his power bill.
I enter the kitchen and realize instantly that something is terribly wrong. It’s Charlie, the head cook. Charlie who is always making up silly songs about women’s anatomy as he flips pancakes and slaps bacon on the griddle. Charlie who is always grinning like he’s higher than a kite, even through double shifts amid the relentless glare of ceiling lights reflected by an ocean of stainless steel.
Charlie is staring straight ahead, eyes wide and mouth half open, scratching himself absentmindedly with his non-spatula-bearing hand. He doesn’t appear to realize that food is burning in front of him. Crusty is lurking several paces to my right, even more stooped than usual, his arms bent and waving erratically, his beady black eyes sweeping the kitchen from side to side before fixing on me.
“Where have you been? We’re down a person and you better get your ass out there right away–”
Hold on, Mr. Carlson, I want to say. It’s a Thursday evening in August in Cedar City, Utah, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but the usual senior citizens who have been nursing java refills all afternoon, plus what looks like an unemployed guy pretending to read the help-wanted ads and a tourist trying to figure out why she brought the family to a ski resort during the summer. But I can’t get a word in.
Charlie signals me with his eyes. Two quick, furtive darts to his left, toward the food storage lockers beyond Crusty. I hazard a glance, but the boss scuttles sideways to block my view. A low moaning emerges from that direction. I look back at Charlie, nod my head slightly, hand him one of my tubes of skin cream, and retreat from the kitchen.
As I prepare to greet a couple of teen-agers on a cheap date, I silently curse the guidance counselor who steered me into this line of work. Mr. Denning, you made the fundamental mistake of assuming that I like people.
I avoid the kitchen as much as possible, hanging by the register when not waiting on tables.
Right on time, Liz arrives. She’s wearing a blue jacket and red blouse with pearls and a dark skirt. I bring Gabriella a box of candy every month, so she always seats Liz in my section. I guess everybody realizes that I’ve had a crush on Liz forever—everybody except Liz.
I try to avoid eye contact, but my God, just look at this woman. Tall, thin, with legs that go on forever. A slightly pointed chin, but intoxicating blue eyes and that spectacular hair brushing her face in just the right places. On top of that, she’s a successful real estate agent, well known and well heeled.
I pull myself together. “Welcome to IHOP. Can I start you off with a beverage?”
“Coffee, regular,” she states, not looking up from the menu. “And the bacon omelette.”
That throws me off. I mutter: “Regular, not decaf? And the bacon omelette, the one with six strips of bacon?”
“Yes. Any problem?”
“Uh, no, of course not. I’ll be right back with your coffee.”
What an idiot.
I slouch back into the kitchen. Charlie’s expression is even more grave. Crusty, leaning over a prostrate figure in the far corner, is covered in blood and making noises that I don’t even want to contemplate. I drop off Liz’s order, yank up my turtleneck collar, grab a pitcher of coffee, and take a deep breath.
Okay, Sal. You’ve rehearsed this a thousand times. Be relaxed, confident. Tell her that you’ve noticed her on Thursdays, that you think you have some things in common, that you’d like to get to know her.
Of course, I blow it.
Liz is scanning property listings. As I pour her coffee, I say without conscious premeditation: “I’m thinking of buying a house.”
She stares at me, hard, with more than a hint of amusement. I weigh the merits of bolting out the door and driving for days until I’m thousands of miles from anyplace where someone might know me or care that I have gills.
She opens her purse, withdraws a business card, scribbles on the back, and hands it to me.
“I’m usually up late,” she says.
Back by the register, I check out the writing. It sure looks like a residential address.
Somehow, Charlie produces an edible dinner for Liz. Somehow, I get through the rest of her meal without further screw-ups. She gives me a polite nod as she leaves.
The remainder of my shift is a blur. So is the drive to her house, in a trendy subdivision up the hill—if any address in Cedar City can be considered trendy. Liz greets me as if she’s expecting me. I plop down on a beige loveseat next to a coffee table with a thick glass top. She produces two glasses of red wine and hands me color printouts of local properties–condos and small single-family houses, all light-years beyond my price range. I sip my wine and pretend to study the listings.
She turns on the TV. “My new commercial is supposed to air this evening,” she says as she sinks into the couch to my right and crosses her legs.
The news is on. The president and his staff are moving to a remote location near Cumberland, Maryland, as a cost-saving measure. All airports in Switzerland are closed for the fourth straight day, presumably for maintenance.
I need to break the tension. I say: “Switzerland. Isn’t that where some scientists said a research lab accidentally released a dangerous pathogen?”
“Switzerland, Sweden, someplace like that,” she states. “It had to be a hoax. The scientists vanished shortly thereafter.”
The newscasters are recapping the day’s top story. Sales of swimming pools and hot tubs have increased 800 percent. A great sign for the economy. Pool and spa businesses can’t keep up with orders.
Liz is staring at me again. I fight the impulse to pull up my turtleneck top. Too late, anyway.
She crosses to my side of the coffee table and settles in next to me. She leans so close that a few strands of fine red hair come to rest on my arm. She says softly: “See anything you like?”
Before I can respond, her fingertips start brushing my left gill, ever so lightly. I try not to betray my surprise or the degree to which I am turned on. Now her hands are lifting my sweater over my head and tossing it onto the coffee table, sending papers flying. I am not believing this.
I turn and am greeted by a wide smile and brilliant teeth as her face closes in. Warning signals flash through my brain, but they wage a losing battle with my reproductive system, and I react a fraction of a second too late.
Those teeth are pointed. And heading directly for my upper arm.
She sinks her teeth in with savage fury. Then she snaps her head back, her mouth filled with chunks of my flesh.
I cry out “Jesus!” as I leap to my feet and grab my arm. I watch in a stupor as she chews and swallows mechanically, her eyes locked on some distant horizon. Blood drips from her lips.
I stagger to a strategic position behind the couch, my attention alternating between my wound and my assailant. I grab some kind of fabric—possibly a shawl—atop the couch and wrap it around my arm to try to stanch the bleeding.
“What the hell was that?” I manage. “You—you tried to eat me.”
“Hey, don’t take it personally,” she replies, much too matter-of-factly.
I need to leave, desperately. But I can’t walk out on our first date, can I?
Liz sinks to the floor and starts rubbing her stomach rhythmically on the carpet.
I dash to the front door, pause, and blurt out: “I love you.”
Immediately, I regret it. Must have lost a lot of blood.
I find myself walking the streets. Nice neighborhood. Lots of big yards with pools. I come across one pool with several people in it, though the entire property is dark. I approach casually, hoping for an invitation to join them. The occupants are silent, immobile, gazing at the water, completely lost at sea.
I remove my shoes and slacks and ease into the shallow end, careful not to submerge the damaged portion of my left arm. An hour passes, maybe two, as I replay my disastrous date a few hundred times. Finally, I whip up enough courage to return to Liz’s house.
The front door is ajar, so I creep into the living room. The TV is still on. I search the house and garage, but Liz and the silver BMW are gone.
Back at my apartment, I examine my arm in the mirror and discover that the bleeding has stopped and the injured tissues are healing rapidly. I slip on a pair of shorts and a Foreigner T-shirt, and I jump in the car.
In 10 minutes I’m on I-15, southbound. Don’t ask me why; I just know that this is the way Liz has gone.
The road is an obstacle course. Some vehicles are piled up in clusters; others have come to rest at odd angles in driving lanes or on the shoulder. The congestion clears somewhat as I distance myself from Cedar City. The colors of the northern Nevada desert seem unusually vivid; I can almost smell the russet, ochre, buff, and sepia hues of the rolling landscape.
A few miles from Vegas, I exit and head for the first gas station, but the pumps are blocked by cars and a dozen or so oddly shaped figures. Standing or sprawled on the concrete, they look like cartoon characters or kids dressed in cheap Halloween costumes. Some have flattened heads and thick necks with elongated torsos. Others are bloated and display spotted skin and emerging tails. I discern a few gills, pincers, and fins here and there. Most of the creatures are gesturing awkwardly and arguing in high-pitched voices. Now and then one flicks out a long, thin tongue in an expression of … something. None of them seems to be able to work the gas pumps. Acrid smoke and a pulsating red glow down the street suggest even more trouble.
I return to the interstate and make the turn west. It seems that my Prius is getting bigger, or else I’m getting smaller. I crane my neck in order to see the road. My skin is bone dry, my mouth is parched, and my chest is heavy. I open a window.
Yellow lights dance on the dashboard: Check engine. Low fuel. I guess the battery will kick in when the gas is gone. Eventually, the battery will die. I know that, and I know that it should bother me. But it doesn’t. Things are getting weird, very weird. But they are also getting … simpler, I guess. I focus on what matters most.
I need to find Liz. And I need to go home. I will find her and go home. I concentrate on these thoughts, these words, as the miles pass. Liz. Home. I. Will.
Signs. Lots of signs. Los. Angeles. 18. Miles. I grip the steering wheel hard with thin, clammy fingers. I drive.
And I drive.
And now I can drive no more.
I can’t open the car door, so I wriggle out the window. The changes are coming faster now.
I smell smog, oil, sea. The sea: It is near.
I hear wind, waves, screams, moans. Agony or ecstasy? Is there a difference?
I see what appear to be thousands of large fish, dotting the terrain in every direction, as if deposited by a mighty storm. On closer inspection, the creatures are still vaguely reminiscent of people. I scan their faces but detect no sign of Liz–only confusion as the figures morph into ever more primitive forms and inch fitfully westward.
In the distance, I recognize a familiar shape rising above the menagerie: The Ferris wheel on the pier. That vacation seems like it was several lifetimes ago. I contemplate just how far we have come. The circle of life is nearly complete.
I lose my balance and collapse onto asphalt. I crawl as far as I can. Now I flap and flop and roll, leaving a trail of clothing fragments as I progress. Toward the water. Always toward the water. Always toward Liz and home.
I maneuver over and around scaly bodies. The sand is rough, yet it creates a pleasant tingling on my skin. I feel ocean spray. Not much farther.
A wave washes over me. It recedes and leaves me gasping. Now a second wave breaks. And a third.
A huge wave crashes and drags me into the ocean. I tumble and flail, disoriented and close to panic. My mouth fills with water. But instinct takes over, and I let go. Gradually, swirling shapes and colors coalesce into recognizable features: waves above; sand below; the world ahead. Energy surges through me. My gills. Of course.
I navigate the turquoise water. Streaks of sunlight stab currents, fracture, and dissipate in the depths. Every movement registers: Friend. Friend. Possible enemy. Friend.
I move on. It is darker and cooler. Better.
There! A cavity, almost totally concealed by vegetation. It is small and murky, yet it feels right. I enter it, my new cave.
I am home.
I rest. I am strong. I am ready.
Now! A streak of silver, with a splash of red. It could be. It could be her.
I chase the colors and the movement. Closer. Ever closer.
I really hope it is her. I really hope it is Liz.
Because it’s time for breakfast.
Steve Bates has published several science fiction stories. The most recent, “Mostly a Question of Molecular Bonds,” was released by Perihelion magazine in July 2014. In December 2013, “The Present” was posted by Aurora Wolf. He is a former reporter and editor for news publications such as The Washington Post, and he has won several nonfiction writing awards.