Serving Fish

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by Christopher Caldwell

Christopher Caldwell is a Black American living in Glasgow. He is a Clarion West Alumnus and a recipient of the 2007 Octavia E. Butler Scholarship. His work has appeared in Fiyah, Obsidian Literary Journal, and Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars.

~~~

Eric ran towards the shore of the lake, still half made-up as Mahogany Eternique, heels in hand, gaffing tape undone, red taffeta train dragging behind in the mud. He sprinted until he reached the water’s edge, picking up speed despite snagging his dress twice on branches that littered the shore, and fell to his knees. The cool water soaked through all four pairs of pantyhose as it lapped against his knees and calves. Panting, and clutching the side which ached from running a mile and a half in a corset, Eric tried to work up enough spit to speak without croaking. His nostrils flared wide. He breathed in the dank, algae smell of lake water.  He licked his lips, glitter rough against his tongue, and pitched his voice as loud as he dared across the water. “Flounder, flounder in the sea, rise up from the depths for me…”

He stared across the surface of the lake for nearly a minute, watching the city lights reflect. Except for a few leaves washing up onto the shore, the water seemed untroubled. Eric called out over the water again, his voice cracking with expectation, “Flounder, flounder in the sea?”

But the lake’s surface remained placid. He stared across the water for what felt like forever, not daring to blink. At last, Eric shuddered, and shut his eyes. A great spasm shook his body. Tears mixed with mascara clumped like oil droplets in his false eyelashes.

A rasping baritone rose above the sound of the cars behind and the water lapping against the shore ahead. “This is not, strictly speaking, a sea.”

Eric’s eyes snapped open. An enormous black shape lay just beneath the lake’s surface. It’s grown as big as an eighteen wheeler, Eric thought. The front end of an immense flatfish, scaly and covered in barnacles. broke the surface. Two jaundiced eyes the size of dinner plates on the same side of a misshapen head regarded him; a sideways mouth opened and closed, spiny teeth gnashing in the air. Eric straightened his back, his bodice sagging against his chest without the padding he used to fill it, and spread out his arms in supplication. “Though you may not care for my request, I’ve come to ask it, nonetheless.”

The sideways mouth opened, and the voice echoed over the water. “I wondered when you would ask again. What is it this time?”

Eric’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Revenge.”

The yellow eyes seemed to wobble slightly. “You know the costs.”

Eric smiled sadly. “I do.”

The surface of the lake roiled, and a sudden salty wind sprang up from nowhere, stinging Eric’s cheek and eyes.

The baritone voice cracked out up over the howling wind as the giant fish sank down into whatever depths it had come from.

“Granted.”

~~~

When Eric was ten, his parents, deciding that he needed to toughen up and be more of a man, sent him on a long crabbing and fishing trip with his grandparents. Nestled in the plush back seat of his grandmother’s rust-colored Chevrolet Caprice, Eric read facts about Pacific marine life from the backs of collectible cards with glossy colored photos while his grandfather fumed about the traffic from Sacramento to Bodega Bay. “I don’t know why these fools even get in cars if they can’t drive.”

Eric’s grandmother sucked at her dental bridge; it gave her a sour look. “Roland, you pull over at the next stop and I’ll drive the rest. Doctor said to mind your blood pressure.”

“My blood pressure’ll be fine. Wait’ll we get to the boats. Sea air and a reel will fix us up. Maybe straighten the naps out of that boy’s hair.”

“Roland. Leave him alone.”

“I just don’t get why his mama let his hair get wild like that. He needs a military cut. Don’t know where that nappy hair comes from, not my side.”

Eric’s grandmother sucked at her bridge again. “Quit pretending you had good hair before you lost it and drive if you’re going to. I’m going to rest my eyes.”

Eric read about the mating habits of the grunion. His grandfather turned up the radio and grunted in approval at the Stylistics.  Eyelids heavy, lulled by the sounds of classic R&B, Eric fell asleep.

When he awoke, it was twilight and the Caprice was parked in front of a weathered motel that had seen better days. The seafoam green door to room seven was ajar, and his grandfather bustled in carrying luggage and a tackle box. His grandmother was still sitting in the front, and patted him on the cheek. “You hungry? I brought some red beans in Tupperware. I’ll heat ‘em up on the hotplate if you want something to eat.”

Eric nodded and slid bonelessly out of the car, and trudged into room seven, wiping his feet on the mat and staring at the swirls on the carpet. They were the colors of pea soup and chocolate milk. The motel room smelled like the sea and old cigarettes. Eric lay down on the double bed closest to the window without taking off his Keds and stretched his arms out wide as if to fill as much space as possible. His grandmother poured a grey-brown mass of red beans and hamhocks into a little pot on the hot plate and hummed softly. Eric fell asleep to the sounds of the sea and his grandmother’s wordless hymn.

The next morning, they went out on a mostly white fishing boat named “Aphrodite’s Kiss” with a small group of retirees who seemed to regard the serious-faced, slight black boy with a mixture of amusement and wariness. One of them, an elderly man with an impressive mustache and wispy remnants of sideburns smiled at Eric with nicotine-stained teeth and asked, “Looking forward to a battle of nature on the high seas?”

Eric shook his head and fingered the pair of binoculars around his neck. “No sir. I hope we won’t be fighting nature. I’m on nature’s side.”

The old man laughed and clapped Eric on the back. “This one’s a regular John Muir.”

After about a half hour, the boat found a still, quiet place on the ocean, and the crew cut the engines. Fishing reels came out. Eric’s grandmother helped him bait his hooks with shrimp flies. “This one works especially well on sand dab, Baby Dumplin’”

Eric tried not to blush at the nickname and focused on attaching a two-pound sinker to his line.  With his grandmother watching approvingly from over his shoulder, he cast off and waited. His grandmother leaned in close enough that he could smell her, a mixture of Oil of Olay, baby powder, and designer imposter perfume, over the salt smell of the sea. “Remember, sand dabs bite a bunch of times then stop. Don’t pull ‘em up the first time you get a bite. You gotta be patient.”

Eric nodded, rested his chest against the railing, and felt the boat bob up and down on the waves. Overhead, seabirds whirled and screamed. The men sometimes punctuated the quiet with raucous laughter at jokes told at a volume too low for Eric to hear.

One by one the retirees reeled in their catch. Wriggling flat fish with eyes on the left sides of their heads flopped on the deck as they were brought up and pulled off hooks. The fish were tan and mottled like the backs of the retiree’s hands. Eric kept his hand steady on his rod as he watched his grandfather drop six pancake-sized fish into a bucket. Minutes passed without so much as a tremble on his line from the rising ocean breeze.

Eric’s grandmother patted his shoulder after stopping to pluck some fish from her own hook. “Not everyone is lucky all the time.”

But then the end of his rod bowed down nearly an inch. His fingers tingled and itched, but remembering what his grandmother had told him, he waited. The line jerked seven times in rapid succession, then lay still. He began to reel in the line, eyes gleaming with triumph. He turned the handle, slowly at first, but faster as he felt the weight on the end of line. His grandfather squinted and peered over his shoulder, “Looks like you caught a nice dab or three, boy.”

He turned the handle as smoothly as he could manage, although his arms ached from the effort. After what seemed an interminable period, a flatfish wider than Eric’s head splashed through the surface wriggling on the end of his line. He whooped and brought it down on the deck with a fleshy thump. But when he leaned over to pull it from the hook, the world went quiet.

The air around him was still, and all the adults seemed taken by a spontaneous game of freeze tag. Eric blinked twice and rubbed his eyes. The fish was still wriggling. It opened its sideways mouth and spoke to him in a voice that was low and rasping. “Only you can hear me, boy. I slowed things down so we’d have a chance to talk.”

“Fish don’t talk.” Eric set his jaw and glared suspiciously behind him. The adults were still motionless.

The fish flopped and made a rasping noise that might have been a laugh. “But yet I speak. Look, I wasn’t always a fish. I’ll spare you the details. I was once a man. If you throw me back in the sea, you’ll have my gratitude. And my help if I can give it.”

“What kind of help? Can you grant wishes?”

“Nothing so crude. But I can change things that are to things that are not, if you ask. Doing so will come with a cost, though.”

The boy exhaled sharply. He had just read The Monkey’s Paw in class. “What if I decide not to throw you back and forget about all this magic and stuff?”

The rasping sound again. “Then I get fried up, or eaten with butter and lemon, and you lose a chance to touch mystery.”

“I’m going to throw you back, but not because I want magic or to be a detective or anything like that. But ‘cause you can talk.”

“Very well. But the offer stands if you change your mind. If you need my help, stand at the shore of the ocean and call, ‘Flounder, flounder in the sea, come up from the depths for me,’ and I will aid you as best as I can.”

“Aren’t you a sand dab?”

Rasp. Eric picked up the fish with both hands and threw it over the side. A thin red ribbon of blood trailed behind it through the water. Eric was so still that he did not notice that movement around him had resumed. His grandfather grumbled, “What you do a fool thing like letting that nice piece of fish go?”

“Roland, leave the boy alone,” his grandmother said.

“Fine. But he don’t get none of my fish. He can eat red beans again.”

~~~

During high school, Eric fell in with a group of queer kids who played butch in front of their peers. He was adopted one day after yearbook class by Events Editor Phil, who eyed him and asked conversationally, “You like guys, don’t you?”

Taken aback by the bluntness of the question, Eric could think to do nothing else but nod, and soon after found himself completing a trio that ran havoc on the seedy streets of Los Angeles.

Each of them adopted fake names for their clandestine lives; Phil called himself Lucky hoping that it would ring true, Nico chose the name Ram in a none-too-subtle advertisement of his sexual proclivities, and Eric’s slight figure and beatific expression earned him the nickname Angel. Phil and Nico’s parents relaxed whenever they saw Eric around; they were certain a good boy like that would keep their own wild children out of trouble.

On Friday nights, Eric would go with Lucky and Ram to The Study, a seedy gay bar in Hollywood that seldom checked ID. Ram liked rough trade, and there was a certain kind of thug that lingered over the too-strong drinks served up by the Korean bartender regulars called Chinese Andy. One Friday, just before the Spring term ended, Eric sat at the bar primly, hands in lap, sipping a throat-scorching Cuba Libre that had only the barest hint of Coca-Cola. Ram was in the back parking lot, probably pressed against the wall by some hard-living gangster who couldn’t resist a bit of muscular teenage flesh. Andy kept an eye on Eric whenever Ram or Lucky wandered off, shooing anyone who got too close with a pestilential stare and pointed references about chicken not being on the menu.

This Friday wasn’t especially busy, and Eric passed the time arguing with Andy about books they’d read. “I still think there’s something deeply creepy about how Marq manipulates Rat Korga,” Eric said, gesticulating a little with his right hand.

Andy shrugged and wiped down the counter with a rag, scrubbing at an ancient stain. “So you think it’s really about a ‘good’ slave master? I just think it’s hot.”

The red padded front door slammed open as if to punctuate Andy’s opinion. Eric whipped his head around to take in the figure filling the door: 6’4” in heels and sequins with towering wig and nails sharp as talons stood the biggest, baddest, blackest drag queen Eric had ever seen. For a moment the queen stood stock still, posed like an Old Hollywood Vamp and seemed to shimmer like the haze over the asphalt on the hottest summer day. Eric felt something new well up inside him. Not lust, covetousness. The drag queen seemed to evoke an unearthly, titanic beauty, like a Valkyrie covered in stardust and come to land in the pothole-filled parking lot of The Study. Then the spell was broken as the queen laughed and shouted out in basso profundo, “Chinese Andy! A girl can work up a thirst. Make mama a whisky sour.”

~~~

It was that same year that Ram had the brilliant idea for the lot of them to rent a U-Haul truck and ride in the back to beach party in Malibu. Eric had misgivings. “I don’t think it’ll be safe.”

Ram slapped him on the back. “It’ll be fine! All six of us can’t fit in Lucky’s shitty Stanza. Think of it like a limo. Without windows.”

“Don’t think limousines use lawn chairs as seating.” Lucky said, worrying a kiss curl into another position on his forehead.

Ram smirked. “Limos also don’t let teenagers drink Ram’s famous Malibu cocktails out of a gallon jug.”

“Still sounds dangerous. No seatbelts,” Eric said, peering into the gloomy interior of the truck.

Ram put his hand on his forehead mockingly. “Oh la, poor Angel is such a delicate china doll he would just break to pieces if we hit a bump in the road.” Then, scowling, “Nigga, just because you high yella don’t mean you ain’t got warrior blood. You can see them African naps fightin’ on your head.”

Eric took a long swig from the jug of fruit punch and rum then clambered into the back of the truck with four others, muttering under his breath. Ram pulled the sliding door closed with a slam and darkness closed in on them. “The Elegance!” Eric shouted.

Except for being knocked around as the truck navigated turns and a moment of terror as Eric’s lawn chair nearly collapsed under him, the half hour drive to Malibu was uneventful. When Ram pulled open the sliding door, the gallon of punch was more than half-finished between the four of them in the back, and they all blinked and squinted in the daylight.

Ram bowed with mock-gallantry, “My Ladies, your chariot has arrived.”

Eric frowned. “I feel like I’ve been in a rock tumbler.”

“You’re no longer a diamond in the rough then,” Lucky said.

Eric hopped out of the back of the truck, gathered what dignity he had left, and turned to take in the sights. The pale sands stretching beneath a stony promontory were covered with towels, pavilions, beach umbrellas, and folding chairs of a dizzying variety of candy colors. And the people! Black men, women, and drag queens of every size, shape, and shade from inky to ivory cavorted, posed, and preened by the shore. A towering coffee-and-cream colored drag queen in a feathered showgirl headdress was playing beach volleyball against a blue-black muscle-boy in speedos who couldn’t have been more than five feet tall. A slender caramel-colored boy walked arm-in-arm with his dark chocolate boyfriend. Eric stood there trying to take it all in. Ram rumbled over his shoulder, “Girl, close your mouth before something flies in. We need to find a place to set down so haters can break their necks looking at us.”

Ram strode towards the shore like a peacock, glaring at anyone who bothered to smile. Eric followed behind half-smiling, holding the half-empty container of punch. Lucky ululated in imitation of savages from bad movies and tromped puppyish over the sands, innocent of ugly looks and curses when he his passing scattered sand onto blankets and beach towels.

After they set up an umbrella and Ram lay out to drink up the sun in the sluttiest pose he could devise, Eric crept away from the group toward a narrow line of rock at the far edge of the shore. From there he could take in everything, the ocean, the dazzling people, the rich deep color of it all without worrying that he was too colorless by comparison.

From his perch on the rock, he saw the crowd part as if royalty was approaching. Standing nearly a head taller than everyone around her was Ebony Eternique, the drag queen he had first glimpsed months ago at The Study. She wore a rhinestone spangled gold bikini, a translucent cape and the highest Lucite heels Eric had ever seen. Her wig was arranged in a tower of gleaming curls dusted through with pearls and crystals. Despite her mass, she seemed to glide effortlessly. Her platform heels glittered in the sun and did not seem to sink in the sand. The wind blew her chiffon cape behind her and almost every eye was on her in admiration or envy. She was no mere queen anymore, but a Goddess, Venus in reverse come to wade inexorably into the sea.

Eric’s heart beat fast, and his mouth tasted like chalk. Makeup, baubles, and poise had given Ebony power. This was magic. This was mystery. Mystery. The word struck a chord in his memory. He thought of a childhood trip to Bodega Bay, of a sand dab he’d caught and abandoned. With a sad, drunken smile, he turned his face away from the party and towards the sea spray. In little more than a whisper he called, “Flounder, flounder in the sea, come up from the depths for me…”

The world went still.

Seagulls froze in midflight. The water roiled and turned black. The sand dab surfaced. The flatfish had grown as big as a manhole cover. Much too large for that species of fish, Eric thought, remembering his animal cards.

It swiveled its froggy eyes towards him. The sideways mouth seemed to grin. “It’s been a long time. Seven years? I thought you gave up on magic.”

“I want to BE magic, like Ebony Eternique.”

The fish wriggled. “You’ve been drinking.”

Eric shrugged. “You said you could help me.”

The fish made the rasping sound that might be a laugh. “I can give you the power to transfix men, to fascinate them with your gaze. I can give you the power to rule hearts. But it will cost.”

“I don’t have a lot of money.”

The fish rasped. “Not that sort of cost. You will become a little more like me, and a little less like you. This is the cost.”

Eric shrugged. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

The flesh between his toes grew cold and began to itch. He felt skin pulled taut and stretch. He looked down in sudden horror as webbing knitted his toes together like a fin. The fish sank beneath the waves. Its baritone echoed out from behind Eric. “Granted.”

The noise of the world returned again.

~~~

It took Eric nearly a month to work up the nerve to talk to Ebony Eternique about drag, and then almost another two after that to ask if Ebony could show him how to be a drag queen. Ebony had grabbed Eric’s face with her strong, long fingers and stared at him for twenty seconds in the dim light of The Study before sucking her teeth, laughing and slapping Eric hard on the back. “I never had a drag baby, but there’s something about you. Sure, I’ll be your mama.”

At first it seemed hopeless. Eric was terrible at doing his own makeup, awful at lip synching, and clumsy in heels. But Ebony didn’t give up, and neither did Eric. And after she drilled him to the point where he could walk backwards down stairs in heels, do contour makeup in his sleep, and lip synch to songs in languages he couldn’t speak, Ebony decided her protégé was ready.

Eric was set to make his debut at Diamond Catch, a notorious gay nightclub whose patrons were not at all shy about voicing their displeasure with substandard acts. He had run through a dress rehearsal earlier in the week, but that night was his first time in front of a crowd.

Three songs before he was scheduled to go on, he waited backstage with Ebony, who was going on just before him. Backstage was a cramped, crowded storeroom filled with musty costumes, cracked mirrors, and queens in various states of undress.

A skinny, pockmarked boy with frizzy hair and prominent front teeth was slathering on foundation furiously. Eric smiled tentatively. The boy put his hands on his hips. “I hope you don’t bomb. I’m supposed to go on after you, and I’m still cooking. Buy me some time.”

Eric adjusted his wig in the mirror. “I hope I don’t either. I’m Eri—Mahogany.”

“Eri-Mahogany? That’s a bougie name. I am Sierra Sin. You may call me Mistress.” Sierra turned to glance at Eric. “Well. You are most definitely a fishy queen. You look like a real girl. I bet you’ll get all kinds of chasers.”

“Chasers?”

Sierra snorted. “Don’t you know nothing? ‘Straight’ boys who want to hit some of that ass you got padded.”

Ebony called over her shoulder as she stomped toward the stage. “My baby ain’t takin’ up with no trash. And daylight is no queen’s friend, so she’ll be keeping that face in the night.”

Eric looked at himself in the mirror again. His balls ached from being tucked out of sight, his feet were sore, the padding was hot, and his face was caked with makeup, but the illusion was startling. Mahogany was a goddess like Dorothy Dandridge or Lena Horne. Mahogany glided over to wait in the wings while Ebony performed her set.

All too soon, Ebony finished her lip synch, and gestured towards Mahogany. The basso profundo voice seemed to fill the world. “And I have a very special treat for y’all. My little baby is going to tear up the stage tonight for you, for the first time. Give it up for Mahogany Eternique!”

Mahogany prowled out onto the stage like a leopard, drinking up the spotlight that shimmered on her sequins. She could do this. Men were creatures for her to control. The music welled up behind her, and her lips took the shape of the words. Her eyes sought out a man and she thought, want. The sudden heat was palpable. She knew he’d do anything for her, and she reached out her hand and smiled contemptuously as he fumbled in his wallet to pass her a twenty dollar bill. One by one, she ensnared them with her smoldering gaze, making them feel her beauty. The crowd crushed against the stage trying to get close to her. She gave none of them a second glance until her gaze settled on someone who she didn’t need to inflame. Andy. Eric’s eyes lingered on his friend with a newfound understanding. Then the song ended, the lights came up, and he exited to thunderous applause.

~~~

Four years after the beach party, Lucky had moved across country to go to college, Ram had found Jesus, gone back to being Nico, and turned into an enormous pain in the ass. But Eric kept in touch with Andy, who came to almost every one of his shows as Mahogany. Mahogany Eternique was doing three shows a week at two different clubs and making more than enough in tips and her cut of the door to pay the rent as well as foot the bill for wigs, makeup, accessories, and the fabric needed to create new and ever more outré costumes.

At least once a month he and Andy would make time to have dinner together. Eric would leave Mahogany behind in her world of wigs, makeup, and lip synch to talk to Andy about books someplace where no one paid any attention to him.

One month they went to Santa Monica Pier for dinner. Not any particular restaurant. Eric grabbed a corn dog, and Andy got fish and chips from a stand. They walked along the pier past the carnival games talking. Andy stuffed a ketchup-soggy fry into his mouth. “Hey, you want to try some of this? It’s surprisingly good.”

Eric shook his head. “I hate fish.”

Andy smirked. “That’s something I expect Mahogany to say. She wouldn’t eat her own kind.”

Eric shook his head. “Just because I serve fish realness three times a week doesn’t mean I feel like being at the top of the food chain.”

Andy stuffed a bit of fried cod into his mouth. “Your loss. Hey, wanna do that test your strength thing?”

“I’ll win.”

Seven carnival games and three stuffed animals later, the two of them sat in companionable silence on a bench overlooking the ocean. Darkness had settled in somewhere between the water-gun races and the darts. Andy put an arm around Eric. “It’s weird. I hated that job at The Study, but meeting you came out of it, so being called Chinese for a year-and-a-half was worth it.”

Eric smiled. “I’m glad you were there to keep me from being kidnapped by some OG with a thing for girly-boys.”

Andy stirred. “I always loved this place. It reminds me of being a kid. Reminds of when I thought everything would work out all right, you know?” He slumped forward and his shoulders sagged.

“Hey? Something up?” Concern limned Eric’s eyes.

Andy sighed. “Yeah. My mother. She’s a tough old bird. But the cancer’s come back, again. And each time the chemo’s worse.” His voice cracked. “I don’t know if she can handle it again.”

Eric turned to face Andy and squeezed his shoulder. “You got friends who love you. We’re there for you.”

Andy leaned in to kiss Eric. Eric kissed back, parting his lips, crushing them against Andy’s teeth. The stubble on Andy’s chin scraped against the smoothness of Eric’s skin. Yes, Eric thought. He was hungry for this. Then, abruptly Eric pulled back.

Andy’s eyes widened in confusion. His cheeks were still flushed and lips plump with arousal. “Is there something wrong?”

Eric smiled and covered Andy’s hand with his own. “No everything’s okay, I just need some air.” He stood up and half-stumbled away from the bench.

Eric walked to the edge of the pier, a balloon tied to his left wrist, holding a teddy bear in his right hand. He looked over the railing at the black water below with the lights from the Ferris wheel and the carnival rides reflecting back like a parody of the night sky. He called out over the shrill music of the carousel and the popping of airguns, “Flounder, flounder in the sea, come up from the depths to me…”

The music cut mid-note. This time the sand dab loomed in the surf as big as a Volkswagen bug.

“Four years. Doing better than most. I imagine that little trick I taught you got some use?”

“What can you do about someone who’s dying?” Eric shouted, although the world was still and quiet.

“I cannot resurrect the dead. But dying is another matter. I can cure someone who is ill. But there is always the cost.”

“I need you to heal Andy’s mother! Fuck the costs.” Eric shouted. He felt an itching and a coldness down his left arm. Then pain in pinpricks. He rolled up the sleeve of his shirt in time to see iridescent scales push themselves through his skin to lie down flush like tiles along his arm.

The fish sank beneath the waves. “Granted.”

~~~

Andy moved to Denver about a year after his mother went into spontaneous remission. Eric and Andy kept in touch, although Mahogany’s schedule remained full, and grew fuller as drag returned to mainstream attention via reality shows. Mahogany went on tour, and after a packed show before a Denver audience, Eric met with Andy for dinner at an all-night taco joint.

While nibbling on a carne asada taco with extra chile verde, Andy remarked, “I’m not used to seeing you all glamorous for dinner.”

Eric, still made up as Mahogany, laughed. “I’m not crazy about it, but I went straight from the airport to the club where I did my makeup for three hours, and I’m famished.” He illustrated this by cramming an entire carnitas taco into his mouth without smudging his lipstick.

Andy whistled. “If I knew you had such skills, I mighta hit that.”

Eric slapped him playfully on the upper arm. “You had your chance.”

After dinner they walked arm-in-arm together along the banks of the Platte River, laughing and remembering old times. Eric’s eyes were luminous and sad. “Sometimes I feel like you’re the only one I can be real with, Andy.”

“Even dressed like this?” Andy squeezed one of Eric’s birdseed breasts.

As they walked past stoner hill, a figure lurched out of the bushes. The sodium glare of the streetlights did him no good. He was fifty-ish and squat. He had a Fu Manchu style mustache that made his mouth look droopy and petulant. His greasy Jheri Curl hair reminded Eric of seaweed.

Eric clutched Andy’s hand nervously; the strange man was carrying a crowbar in his right hand, and a car stereo in the left. The man’s skin was pockmarked and his shoe-leather brown complexion had an ashy grey undertone to it.

“We don’t want any trouble,” Andy said, holding his hands out.

The man smiled. He held out the car stereo. “Y’all want to buy this? Like brand new. Only been used once.”

Andy shook his head. “Naw man. We don’t want to buy stolen goods.”

The man slurred, “Why you think it’s stolen? You think you better than me?” His eyes narrowed at Andy. “You gooks always tryin’ to steal good black women with your one-inch peckers.”

Eric curled his hands into fists. “Not a woman, bruh. Leave us be.”

The man’s face contorted and he spat on the ground. “Faggot!”

He moved towards Eric with surprising swiftness. Panicking, Eric projected desire at the man. Want. The man’s eyes widened for a moment and his jaw went slack. Then his face contorted again and he slammed his crowbar into Andy’s face. The crunching sound was sickening, and as Andy slid to the ground, Eric fell to his knees in horror.

It was a precious few moments before Eric could compose himself enough to call 911.

~~~

After an ambulance took Andy away, and the police had questioned Eric and promised an APB, Eric found himself in the blue-grey waiting room of the Trauma Unit at the nearest hospital. Half-dressed and all numb he stared at a cup of hot chocolate someone had brought him hours ago. It had gone cold and congealed. His lipstick was still perfect.

A tired-eyed doctor in faded orange scrubs hovered at Eric’s shoulder. “You were Andrew Kim’s friend?”

The “were” in that sentence slammed down in Eric’s chest like a stone. He stood up, poised with his head held high, and walked towards the door. He did not wait to hear the doctor say, “I’m sorry.”

Outside of the sliding doors to Emergency an EMT was taking a furtive smoke break. Eric walked near him and forced a smile. “Hey, what’s the nearest body of water? Big body of water?”

“Sloan’s Lake,” the EMT pointed vaguely north, “That way a ways. But it’s not safe at night. Especially dressed like that.”

Eric broke out into a run.

~~~

After the fish sank into the murk of Sloan Lake, Eric stood and felt tiny pinpricks all along his spine. Good, he thought. He sniffed the air particles wafting above: gasoline, sweat, cheap tacos from the down the road. He opened his mouth, ran a tongue over sharp barbed teeth that had sprouted just behind the set he had capped, cleaned, and straightened after adolescence. Without knowing how he knew, he knew where his prey was. Swifter than he would have thought possible, he darted along the shore and headed inexorably towards Federal Boulevard. He avoided cars and early morning pedestrians.

There. Across the street from him was a little yellow house. A Chevy Impala stood on blocks in the driveway. He knocked on the door forcefully three times. He heard stirring. The door creaked open on its chain. Fury rose up in Eric, its intensity driving all color from the world. The same piggy eyes. The Jheri Curl. The stupid Fu Manchu mustache. He forced his snarl into a smile and projected at the man. Want.

The man’s face slid into a lazy smile. “So, you came here without your gook? You wanna play? I’ll tap that ass if you can keep it on the downlow, baby.”

Eric made his hips sway. He lowered his eyelids and parted his lips. “Oh, I got something that will sho’ nuff set your world on fire.”

The man rubbed his crotch. “Well hurry in baby, before someone sees you.” He opened the door wide enough for Eric to slide in.

The door shut behind them with a slam. He grabbed Eric’s ass and kneaded it. “I knew a bitch like you would want some of this.”

“Yes,” Eric said into his ear, feeling his new teeth lengthen. “What do I call you, Daddy?”

“Mm. Daddy. Yeah. Big Daddy is just right. Big Daddy got something for that ass.” He slid his hand up from Eric’s ass to reach for the zipper on his dress. Spines soundlessly ripped through the taffeta, and dripping with fluid, rose to meet Big Daddy’s hand.

“Ow! The fuck!” he cried.

Eric shoved him back and opened his mouth. Human teeth cascaded to the floor, revealing sharp, spiny, barbed things.

Big Daddy screamed in terror, even while clutching his hand that had already begun to swell and purple.

“His name was Andy, not gook, you fuck.”

Eric walked out the door, stately as if in a procession, even as he felt the cold, familiar prickling of scales sprout up his right arm. He ignored Big Daddy’s howls of fury as he turned back towards Sloan Lake, trailing the tatters of his red dress behind him.

The skin between his fingers itched and tightened as they fused into fins. Once clear of the Impala, he broke into a run, not out of fear, not in fury, but for the sheer joy of it, even as the skin beneath his jaw opened up and feathery gills sprouted.

He returned to Sloan Lake, gasping for breath from a mouth twisting sideways, fell into the water with a resounding splash and disappeared beneath the surface, leaving only a ribbon of taffeta red as blood behind him.

One Comment

  1. I loved this story! The multi-level “fish” reference, the loyalty of friendship, the self-awareness and awakening of ones true identity, all wrapped up in sci-fi! However, my very favorite aspect of this story was the inclusion of Black characters.

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