21. ISLA

I don’t really know what to do with myself.

I feel like I should feel different, somehow. Like giving up my pelt should have fundamentally changed me. But I can still feel the ocean in front of me, and if I walked outside, I’d hear the herd singing. And I feel the same. Tired. Cold. Hungry. 

Hob chirps at my feet and crawls up into my lap, and I try not to hiss when his sharp little claws dig into the skin on my thigh. I’m sitting in Kit’s kitchen, his overstuffed armchair dragged up to the largest window, drinking tea.

I don’t want or like the tea. But I’m a bit out of sorts, and I figured it’s what Tanis or Mum would do if they were here. Make me tea.

The big house was too loud, even though no one was making noise when we got back. Kit and Thomas were asleep in Kit’s room and the bathroom was covered in vomit and salt water and weirdly a lot of hair, so I guess they did the purification ritual. Fadwa had been extremely clear that Thomas was supposed to wait for her, but I’m glad he didn’t. I’m glad Kit helped him. They needed that.

Fadwa immediately started poking through Cormac’s old books and supplies, and the twins set about cleaning up the bathroom and recoiling the iron chains and setting the house to rights. They were silent. I think the rite with Owen rattled them.

Seeing a man walk into flames rattled me too, even though I knew it was coming.

Tanis and Murray barely lingered; they came back to the house to pack up what clothes Owen had left and grab the extra pounds Kit had squirrelled away, and then they left again to take Owen to the ferry. He was still asleep in the back of the jeep last I saw him, and I hope that’s the last image I ever have of him. Curled up, sleeping, and harmless.

Unable to hurt anyone I love.

They offered to let me come with them, but I said no. Cars make me sick, and I wanted to be alone. So I came to Kit’s. Someone needed to feed Hob.

I wouldn’t say that I regret it. Giving up my pelt. Because I don’t. But I also don’t think I’ve come around to really processing it all. The fact that I’m staying on land. The fact that I’ll never have any other option but to stay on land.

The thing I’ve feared all my life has happened: I don’t have an escape route. I’m locked in. I’ve made a commitment.

It’s not the worst thing, though, is it? I had already basically decided to stay. To be with Murray. To look after Kit. To see how this thing with Tanis may play out. There’s nothing left for me in the sea. The sea made that quite clear.

And I did it for a good reason. The best reason. To keep Kit safe. I’ll never regret that.

I wonder where I’ll go. Should I leave Mab and go back to the mainland and live with Murray? That seems like the most obvious solution. Meet his wife. Meet baby Isla. Maybe Kit will come with me. The island will be here. Tanis will be here. Other than her, there’s nothing here for me. Right?

I’ll have to get a job. I’ll have to get a job and clothes and a bra and learn all those other weird human interactions and cues that I’ve never paid attention to before. I’ll have to ask Kit what Brexit and lesbians and Aries are. And I’ll have to start paying for things. Stealing is a bad idea when you can’t escape to the sea.

There’s a knock at the door and Hob chirrups when I startle from the noise. It’s either one of my friends come to check on me, or a deranged kelpie come to murder me and wear my skin.

“Who is it?” I don’t know if kelpies can answer. That will probably be the sign.

The door swings open, and Murray sticks his head in.

“Knock knock,” he says, smiling at me. “Thought you’d be down here.”

Relief spikes through me at the appearance of my brother. Nothing can be bad with Murray around. I think by sheer force of will he makes the sun shine wherever he goes.

“Hey,” I say, putting a stilling hand on Hob’s head. “How’d it go?”

“No problems. He was still asleep when we got there, so we just bought him a seat and carried him on and left him. Well, I carried him on. Tanis flirted with the ferry worker so he would look the other way.”

I’d kill to see what Tanis considers distraction flirting. She was still covered in mud and soot and wearing a bramble crown when she left.

“Where is she? Up at the house?”

“No, she asked me to stop in the village and drop her at her flat,” Murray says, dragging one of the kitchen chairs away from the table and turning it backwards. He sits down on it, resting his forearms against the back of the chair. 

“Oh,” I say, deflating a bit. Of course. Everything is over, things are back to semi-normal, and we found Kit. Of course she wouldn’t stay with us, wearing borrowed clothes and sleeping in a different bed every night and eating random things from the back of the pantry. After what she’s been through, all she probably wants is to shower and sleep in her own bed. 

I would want that too, if I had my own bed.

Where am I going to live? Where am I going to sleep?

“How are you feeling?” Murray asks, cutting into my thoughts. He has a concerned look on his face, and I feel a little guilty. I’ll be alright. I don’t want him worrying about me.

“I’m fine,” I say, which isn’t really a lie. “Tired. A bit…”

“Overwhelmed?”

“Yeah.” I exhale a huge gush of air. “A lot has happened.”

“Aye, I’ve got to admit, I didn’t really expect all this when I came to visit you. Thought I’d come by for a day or two, meet your boy, maybe go out to dinner….” He grins to show he’s joking, but it falls flat. He does look tired. This probably wasn’t a very fun visit for him.

“Are you also starving?” I ask, leaping on the change of subject before I drown in guilt. “Because I could eat someone.”

“Isla, I’m always starving. I’m a growing boy.” Murray flexes one of his huge arms and gives me a cheesy smile. “I need my Weetabix.”

Maybe we can go to the pub. Or is that weird? That’d be a bit like following Tanis home, wouldn’t it? But I am hungry. And I think we’ve eaten through everything in both Kit’s and Cormac’s pantries.

“You’ll get used to it, don’t worry,” Murray says. “It’s not so bad. Being human.”

“Do you like it?”

Murray’s face glows. His eyes crinkle at the edges and his white smile is almost blinding as he leans forward like he’s about to tell me a secret.

“I love it. You will too.”

I’m not so sure about that, but Murray doesn’t seem to catch my hesitation.

“It takes adjusting, but it’s not hard. And I’ll help. Bridget too. She was brilliant when I decided to stay. She took me round to museums and gave me loads of books and we watched so much telly. Have you ever seen Golden Girls?”

I shake my head. I’ve never even heard of it.

“Don’t worry, we’ll fix that,” he reassures me. “You’ll love it.”

He seems so happy. So excited and optimistic for my strange new future.

“Why did you give your pelt away?” I ask carefully. I’ve wanted to know since he mentioned it that first time. It was only yesterday, but it feels like a century ago. “I mean, I know why you stayed, love and all that. But why make that final sever? Why close the door on ever going back to the sea?”

Murray looks at me, and the joking light in his eyes is gone. He’s serious and calm, like a body of water at rest.

“My baby girl,” he answers simply. “She’ll always be on land. So why would I ever leave?”

That. I wish I could have his conviction. I wish I could have his confidence.

“What did you do with it?” 

“Bridget sewed it into a baby blanket. Isla sleeps with it every night.”

That seems like a much better use for a discarded pelt than throwing it into a fire to let a sociopathic fae walk free. A baby blanket is a gift, a treasure. It’s an anchor.

“Look, did Mum ever talk to you about this?” he asks, scooting in closer. A knot forms in my stomach at his words.

“A bit,” I admit. “She told me about how it’ll feel when you find your person, and how important it is to protect your pelt, and how to choose wisely if you give it away.”

Murray nods, like he’s thinking this over, and then runs his hand over his mouth.

“You know that Mum kept her pelt almost up until the end, right? She only gave it away when Conor died.”

I didn’t know that. I had assumed that she had given it away at the very beginning. She was head over heels in love with Conor from day one. 

I wish Murray hadn’t told me that.

“So she could have come back, you mean,” I grind out, turning away from my brother. “After Conor died, she could have come back to the sea, with us, instead of staying on land without him.”

“She could have,” Murray nods. He reaches out to take my hand, and Hob jumps off my lap. I immediately miss his warmth. “But she didn’t. Just before she died, I asked her how she knew when it was time to give her pelt up.”

He pauses, for dramatic effect or to collect himself, I’m not sure. His voice is soft, but it sounds watery. I don’t blame him; thinking of Mum makes me watery myself.

“She said you know it’s time to give up your pelt when you find something the sea can’t give you. When you find the thing you can’t live without. For her, it was Conor. The sea was never going to be able to bring him back to her. So she buried him with her pelt. For me, it’s my little girl. My family.” Murray pauses. “It’s not about what you give up. It’s about what you get.”

The watery feeling in my throat grows, and a tear slips out. 

“Things don’t just happen. You chose to stay on land. You chose to give up your pelt. So what is it that land has that the sea can’t give you? What do you have here that made giving up your pelt worth it?”

I already know the answer.

“You,” I tell him. His eyes go wide. “And Kit. And Tanis. Maybe even Thomas, still on the fence a bit with him, though.”

Murray’s booming laugh fills the room and loosens some of the tension in my chest.

“There you go. That’s what the ocean can’t give you.”

He lets go of my hand and pulls me to him, nearly dragging me to the edge of my chair as he wraps his arms around me and lets out a bear-like growl that I think is meant to be some masculine way of expressing emotion.

“It’s selfish, but I’m so glad you stayed,” he says into my ear.

“Not selfish,” I say, pulling back from the hug. I try to wipe at my eye discreetly, but I know I’m not fooling anyone. “Never selfish.”

Murray drags the back of his hand across his eyes, completely unashamed, and then grabs my hand again.

“We’ll be okay, I promise. We may not have Mum, but we’ve got each other. I’ll take care of you.”

“I can take care of myself,” I argue, and Murray laughs.

“Aye, aye, I know, I know. And you’ve got good people here.” He pauses and his smile falls. He looks more serious than I’ve ever seen him. “Listen, someone else may not say this, so I have to. Humans get weird about things. The way they think and act isn’t always right. If people tell you something is wrong — if the way you think or… who you love is wrong — ignore them. Okay? Trust yourself. Trust what you know.”

 I nod. I don’t really know what he’s talking about, but I nod. I forgot too many of Mum’s lessons because I didn’t understand or didn’t think I’d need them. I don’t want to keep making those mistakes.

He lets me go and stands up, clearing his throat. “Right. I’ve got to get back to work, and I miss the girls, so I’m heading home on the early ferry tomorrow. I figure you probably want to stay with Kit a bit?” I nod, and he smiles, unbothered. “I’m gonna get our extra room fixed up for you. No pressure,” he races to add, holding up his hands. “But it’s there if you want it. For however long you want it. And when things settle down a bit here, you’re coming up for at least a week, yeah?”

“Yeah,” I agree, nodding. A smile is growing, even through my determined gloom. You can’t not smile around Murray. “Yeah, that sounds brilliant.”

“Good. Tanis gave me her number so I could send her baby photos. You call me.”

I nod again. I’d never argue.

“Alright, come here, give me another hug,” he says, holding out his arms. I fall into them again, burying my face in his shirt and squeezing him as hard as I can. He smells like tea and petrol smoke and Murray, and I push my face further into his chest. He laughs and squeezes back, and is just pulling away when there’s a gentle knock on the door.

“Hullo?” Tanis calls from the other side. “Isla, you here? The lights are on.”

“I think that’s my cue,” Murray whispers, scrunching his nose in a wicked grin at me. “Stay safe, pup.”

He goes to muss at my hair but I push him away. He bats at my hand and pulls on one of my curls. They’re dried out and my small hairs are breaking and all of it just looks generally awful.

“Aye, also, when you come up we’re going to sort this out,” he says, gesturing at my hair. I scrunch up my face.

“Don’t bother, I’m shaving it.”

Murray frowns.

“Let me get at it first.” I huff, but he doesn’t even wait for an answer before turning away.

Whatever. Sure. It was growing on me anyway. And Mum liked it.

Murray sidesteps Tanis as he leaves, grasping her tight on the shoulder and saying something in a low voice that makes her laugh and slap him on the back, and then Tanis steps into the kitchen behind him.

She’s washed up. Her hair is damp and curling a bit around her face, her skin scrubbed pink and clean, and she’s wearing fresh clothes that actually fit her and don’t smell of sea and smoke. Her jeans are still dark with odd holes in the knees and she has thick boots on, but her shirt is green, like her eyes. It’s the first time I’ve seen her not seek out black.

“Thought you might be hungry,” she says, holding up a brown paper bag covered in grease stains with one hand and several bottles of brown ale with the other.

“I love you,” I tell her, taking the bag from her and shoving my head inside to breathe in the smell of battered fish. Tanis’s face lights up and she takes her jacket off and drapes it over the radiator. Her shirt is rolled up at the sleeves, showing off her arms again.

She has to know. She has to do this on purpose.

“So,” she says, digging through drawers to find a bottle opener while I set out the take away cartons on the table. “How are you holding up?”

“I just did this whole conversation with Murray,” I say, reaching around her to grab forks from the drying rack. “There were tears and hugging and emotions and I’d love to not do it again.”

Tanis hands me a bottle of ale and gives me an affirmative nod.

“Noted,” she says, taking a long sip. “Just let me know if you reach Thomas levels of falling apart, yeah?”

“I’m nowhere near that, don’t worry,” I reassure her before putting a chip in my mouth. It’s lukewarm but covered in vinegar. Just like I like it. “I’m fine, really. I don’t regret it. Murray helped me kind of reframe it in my mind. There’s good things on land.”

“Oh yeah?” Tanis asks, lifting an eyebrow. “Like what?”

“Like you.”

Her face floods a lovely pink, and she runs her fingers over the lip of her bottle. 

“And Kit. And Thomas,” I add, taking another sip. I really do love ale. “So it’s not just you. No pressure.” She snorts, but doesn’t look up. “But… you’re part of it. I won’t lie. I like you, Tanis. I don’t want to spend four years faffing around that and wasting time and being dramatic. I really like you.”

Tanis sets down her bottle and finally looks up. I can’t read her expression. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to read any human expressions, honestly, but I don’t need to. She’s smiling at me, and she’s lovely. She’s so impossibly Tanis, and it’s the most lovely thing I’ve ever seen.

“I really like you too,” she says. “And I’m really glad you’re staying. That’s awful, isn’t it? Given everything? That’s so selfish.”

“No,” I respond for the second time this hour. “Not selfish.” 

She smiles at me, the wee scar over the freckle on her lip tilting up. I think I spend too much time thinking about that freckle.

But the freckle will be there. Food now. One step at a time. I put another chip in my mouth while I wait for the battered cod to cool down.

“You know, I never thought I’d stay,” I say, pulling the greasy battered skin off the fish. “Don’t tell anyone, but I’m kind of terrified of commitment.” 

Tanis snorts again. It’s abrasive and unexpected and kind of an ugly sound, and it’s brilliant. 

“Murray stayed on land after knowing Bridget for one day. My mum did the same with her husband. That’s mental, right? I know it’s supposed to be romantic, but…”

“No, that’s mental,” Tanis agrees, leaning back in her chair. She rests one black booted foot on her knee. “Sweet. But mental.”

“Thank you!” I exclaim. “Exactly! Like, what if you have one really good day with them, and you stay, and then they’re just… I dunno—”

“A gobshite? An absolute minger? Really into seals in a gross way?”

I nod. Exactly. What if they’re gross?

“That shit would suck,” she says, and takes a sip of her ale.

I wheeze out a laugh and dig into my fish. I’m glad she gets it.

Of course she gets it.

We eat in comfortable silence, watching the moon slowly rise over the ocean through the window. Tanis hooks one foot around mine and drags it toward her under the table, and I steal chips out of her box when I finish with mine, and it’s… nice.

My first meal as fully human. Not a bad one.

When the last chips are soggy and cold and the ale has been emptied and the moon is almost at the end of its climb, Tanis stands and stretches.

“I’m going to head back, then,” she says, stacking the refuse and sliding it back into the brown bag. “I’ll come by tomorrow, bring some food, see how everyone is.”

“Mhm,” I murmur, pulling the sleeves of my borrowed jumper down over my hands. I don’t know where to look or what to do or how to delay her. I don’t want her to go.

“If anything comes up, Kit has my number,” she says, pulling her jacket on and heading to the door. She’s busy gathering her things, distracted by balancing the rubbish in one hand and digging out her keys with the other. She’s not even looking at me. God, I want her to look at me. “Just let me know if you want—”

“Tanis,” I say, moving across the small kitchen in two steps. She turns at the sound of my voice and I press her back against the door, my arms bracketing her sides, my right hand snaking up to cup her cheek. I’ve no idea what I’m doing.

I never know what I’m doing. But it’s time to start learning.

Our eyes meet and her smile stutters, her breath catches. Her eyes turn gold, and that’s when my mind shuts off.

I tilt my head and press my lips to hers in a messy, desperate motion. It’s way too hard and her head knocks back into the door with the force of the kiss, and a surprised puff of air escapes her nose.

I’m about to pull back in horror, but then the bag of rubbish falls to the floor with a crash, and her arms come up to wrap around my waist and pull me deeper into the kiss. Her lips are chapped and taste like vinegar and ale, and I have to crane my head up to reach her, but it doesn’t matter. She bends down to meet me halfway, and we both melt into it.

Mum said that when you find your person, their soul will sing to you. But Tanis isn’t singing. Her soul isn’t saying shit. 

Everything has gone silent. 

The world has gone still, like I’m in the deepest water where it’s just me and the ocean and boundless freedom. Kissing Tanis feels like freedom: like anything is possible and we could go anywhere. Her arms are around my waist, her hands are gripping my hips, and I pull myself closer to her.

It’s like throwing my arm around a tidal wave. Like floating in the rip tide and letting it take me away.

She pulls back from the kiss, breathing heavily and laughing, and presses her forehead to mine. I can feel her chest moving against mine as she takes ragged breaths.

“Is it okay if I kiss you?” I whisper, trying to catch my breath as well. I don’t know how I’m even standing. If she let me go I think I’d fall. 

She laughs again. High and delighted. Unbelieving. Bordering on manic.

“Aren’t we supposed to ask that first?” she murmurs, closing her eyes and nuzzling her nose against mine.

Another thing I don’t know. I don’t feel embarrassed by it, though. Tanis never makes me feel like I don’t know things. Tanis treats me like I know everything.

“Oh. Was it okay that I kissed you?”

“Absolutely,” she whispers, pressing her lips gently to the corner of my mouth. “Now I’m going to kiss you.”

“Okay,” I respond, but she’s already moved in, swallowing my response. Her fingers tighten around my hips and I run my hands up and through her hair. She sighs when my fingernails scratch lightly against her scalp, and pulls my bottom lip between hers.

She walks me back through Kit’s small kitchen, bursting out a shrieking laugh when we run into a chair, cursing when she steps on Hob, never letting me go.

I’m so glad I waited for this. I’m so glad I didn’t force this moment back on the moor when she was tired and scared, when tensions were still running high and Kit was still in danger. I’m glad we have this now, when there’s nowhere to go and no one to save, when we can laugh and I can savour it.

We kiss and stumble our way through the house until Tanis tries to shrug off her heavy jacket. Her arms get stuck in it and in my frantic effort to help push it away from her shoulders, my elbow hits a lamp and knocks it over. We break the kiss, panting slightly, to stare at the wreckage.

“Kit actually liked that lamp,” she mutters, turning her back to me to inspect it guiltily.

“We can, uh. Glue it?” I offer. Murray and I did that once, when we broke a chair at Conor’s.

She shakes her head and sighs.

“No. We’ll have to bury it. We could probably blame it on Owen if Kit asks?”

“Brilliant.” 

I step closer to her and run my hand down her back, then let my arms wrap around her waist and pull her in, just like she did to me earlier today. She sighs and leans back against me for a moment before turning in my arms. 

I can’t keep myself from kissing at the corner of her mouth where her freckle meets her scar, from kissing her cheek, her jaw, trailing up to her ear until her face has been covered in small, quick, searching kisses. I can do this now. She wants me to do this.

She closes her eyes and scrunches them up tight and snorts before leaning in to rest her forehead against mine. Every time she does this, every time she touches me so casually, so confidently, it’s like lightning across my skin. 

I didn’t know the best part of being human was being touched.

“Can I say something that’s going to absolutely destroy this?” she whispers. I nod and run my hands up her arms, pressing my fingers into the muscles that are hidden under the sleeves of her shirt.
“I don’t think anything could destroy this.”

“I was buried alive yesterday.”

“Oh,” I say, my hands falling back to her waist. “Apparently I was wrong.”

She laughs and nuzzles against my nose again.

“This is lovely, don’t get me wrong, this is so lovely, but I…” she pauses. “I didn’t sleep last night. Because I just kept kind of thinking about it, and now this is happening but I’m… I’m so tired.”

“Oh, Christ, me too,” I exhale, letting my head drop to her shoulder. Her hands come up and her thumbs rub wee circles on my back, moving upward, digging into my shoulders. My knees nearly give out from the sensation of it.

“Can I stay with you? I just don’t really want to be alone,” she asks. I pull back from her grip and nod, my hair bouncing so violently it hits her in the cheek.

“Of course you’re not going to be alone,” I say, too forceful for this moment and much louder than I intended. “As long as I’m here, you don’t ever have to be alone, yeah?”

Tanis closes her eyes and lets out a slow, shaky breath.

“Yeah. Yeah, that sounds good.”

We end up curled in Kit’s bed, facing each other in the dark, our hands clasped. The bed is disgusting; the sheets smell like seaweed and the blankets are full of sand. They need changing. The whole house needs a thorough deep clean, to scrub the grime and fear from this week off it. 

We can do that tomorrow.

Or the next day.

“Are you going back with Murray?” Tanis asks, moving her other hand up to curl around a strand of my hair. Her thumb lightly swipes across my cheek bone, and I lean into the contact.

“Not yet. I dunno what I’m doing. Thought I’d stay around here, at least for a bit.”

Tanis scoots closer and wiggles her foot underneath mine. Her feet are so warm. Everything about her is so warm.

“Do you want to come with me to town tomorrow? We can get you some clothes that fit, and you can meet my mum and aunt. You can come to dinner. I was thinking of inviting everyone.”

“Dinner?” I ask, inching myself closer so I can tuck my knee between her legs. She wiggles her nose when one of my curls tickles against it. 

“Mum will cook. You’ll love it, she’s a way better cook than I am.”

“Impossible,” I argue. “But I love her already.”

There are so many things to do tomorrow. Clean up the mess I made in Kit’s kitchen. Probably decide what to do about that nuckelavee and find a way to stay far, far away from the solution. Figure out the rest of my life.

But dinner with Tanis seems like a good start.

I tilt my head up to kiss her again. Slower this time. Softer. She smiles against my lips and moves closer, and her hand trails down my arm to rest lightly on my hip.

This is a good start.

B. GILMARTINComment