Your mother takes you to swim in the sea every day. You’ve been going for as long as you can remember, never missing a day. When you were small, you splashed around in the tidal pools and learnt to float in the shallows. Now that you are nearly grown, the pair of you explore the entire bay. You know every rock, every current, every tide. You’ve swum through storms, broken ice, basked under sunny skies. You’ve watched others flee from sharks or be swept away by the breakers, but the sea holds no fears for you.
When you are done, you return to where your father waits at the shoreline. He carries towels and clothes, a thermos of soup in the winter and ice-cold water in the summer’s heat. The three of you sit, watching the water together, as the orange sun sinks beneath the waves.
One October day, you go for your normal swim. Your mother races you across the sand to where the low tide laps the shore and you dive into the water that feels as warm as your blood. You play tag with a pair of young seals, this year’s pups who are now almost fully grown, and, when you are done, your mother is nowhere to be seen. You don’t panic. She often swims away with her own friends. She’ll meet you on the shore when she is ready.
You swim back to the pebbly beach and you wait, and you wait, and you wait. She doesn’t come.
The local people tut and shake their heads. She should have known better than to swim out there in the currents. She must have been swept away, out to sea, caught in the rip tides that sweep the bay.
You know that nothing in the sea could or would hurt her, but you don’t know how to explain why.
Your father says nothing. He just watches the sea with sad eyes. She didn’t say goodbye to either of you.
A few weeks later, your father moves you to the city. He won’t talk about it, but you know why. He doesn’t want to be reminded of her every time he looks out of the window and sees the ocean. And he doesn’t want to lose you too.
Several days pass and your skin begins to crack and peel. Red, itchy patches appear and it is all you can do not to rub yourself raw. You slather on shea butter but it doesn’t seem to help. You find relief only by accident. Missing the water, you run a bath and find an old bag of Epsom salts in the bathroom cupboard. You throw a handful in because what the hell, and for the first time in what feels like forever you can sleep without wanting to rub yourself raw on the sheets. It doesn’t last, though.
It doesn’t stop you missing swimming either. You go to the public pool but the chlorine stings and the water is calm, flat, dead. There are no currents to play in, and no one to play with.
Whatever is wrong seems to affect you on the inside as well. Every movement is too much effort, like your limbs are stuck in setting concrete. When you look in the mirror, you are horrified by the way your eyes have sunk into your skull, surrounded by shadows the colour of squid ink. The cough starts and it wracks your body as you lie awake, trying not to scratch.
Your father knows you are ill, and he knows what is wrong with you. You can see it in the way he watches you when he thinks you’re not looking, in the way he sits and stares at old photos of your mother when he thinks you’re asleep. He brings you bowls of broth to tempt your appetite but the smell makes you nauseous.
One morning, you can’t get out of bed. Your legs are too weak and your head feels like it’s been stuffed full of cotton wool. When you don’t appear for breakfast, your dad comes to check on you. He frowns at the state of you, skin peeling off, eyes dim. With a sigh, he turns to pack a bag of clothes for you, and a swimsuit.
He picks you up and carries you out to the car. You drift in and out of consciousness during the drive, not sure where he is taking you until you wake up and smell the ocean.
He lifts you from the passenger seat and walks down toward the surf. Your heart leaps with fear, catching in your throat each time his feet slip on the shingle, but he holds you close and keeps walking, straight out into the water.
When the water reaches his waist, he lowers you so that you float, cocooned safely in his arms. The water feels warm to you, even though it is November. Your skin tingles and you lift a hand to the sky to watch the sores disappear before your eyes. Energy courses through your limbs. This is what you needed.
You slip through his arms and dive into the nearest current, which sweeps you out to sea. As you dart through the water, you shrug out of your pyjamas and let them float to the surface. A seal appears and urges you on into the dark blue depths.
Up ahead, you see your mother and you cry out with joy. She sweeps you into her arms and presses kisses to your brow. You always knew that she was alive, but you beg her to tell you why she left. And why she never said goodbye.
She tells you how she fell in love with your father and left the sea to be with him, and how she stayed because she fell in love with you. But she couldn’t stay any longer. The ocean called to her and she had to answer. She does not belong on the land. She offers you a home. You could stay below the sea forever, safe in her arms.
Dark eyes watch the pair of you from the kelp forest and you flinch from their gaze but your mother reassures you. These are your aunts and uncles and cousins. These are your people too. They have been waiting for you.
You stare into your mother’s eyes. You have missed her. You love her. But you look back at the shore, where your father still stands shivering, waist deep in icy water. Somehow you know, if you do not return, he will follow you into the frigid swell and the sea will not welcome him the way it welcomes you.
You glance between your mother, surrounded by her family, in the place where she belongs, and the lone figure waiting by the shore. You know that you will never really belong in either place, but your choice is clear. You kiss your mother, promise her that you will return the next day, every next day, but you cannot stay forever.
As you swim back to the land, you see that your father is holding the clothes you shed, tears running down his face to fall into the waves, salt returning to salt. Your heavy heart blooms as you swim up to him and throw your arms around his neck. You tell him you love him and he holds you close. He insists on carrying you back up the beach, even though you are perfectly capable of walking once again.
The pair of you return home, to the house of your childhood, where every window shows you the sea. You sit in the warm kitchen, wrapped in towels, watching the rain dance with the waves. Your father presses a hot cup of soup into your hands. You look up at him, and you smile. Maybe there is one place you belong, after all.
Rebecca Burton is a queer, neurodivergent writer from the UK. She has previously had short fiction published in Fireside Magazine and Dark Dispatch. When not writing, she can be found learning (too many) languages, drinking (too much) tea, and muttering about hair dye and k-drama on Twitter (@TyGrammarRex).