She’s just a dark smudge on the horizon when I look out the window and see Isla walking into the water.
I didn’t even realise she hadn’t followed us into the house. But there she is, slowly sinking into the ocean, disappearing bit by bit under the dark grey surface.
I wonder how far she’ll go. Is she leaving? Is she abandoning us and the hunt for Kit and going back to the ocean? Is she just going to walk until the waves overtake her and she disappears beneath their crests and I never see her again?
“Here are some dry clothes,” Thomas croaks, shoving a bundle in my arms. “They’re mine, Kit’s are probably too big for you.”
“Thanks,” I respond, not taking my eyes from the window as I pull off my sopping clothes and let them splat to the floor. My movements are slow and painful, and when my soaked shirt grazes the welts on my cheeks, a sharp pulse of pain rattles through my jaw.
My Docs are stiff and filled with water and don’t want to come off. Untying the laces seems like an impossibility right now, so I just wiggle my foot until they slip off and thud to the floor near Thomas’s drenched coat and my bloody t-shirt.
“Isla went into the water,” I say, tugging on a pair of jeans that manage to be both too long in the legs and too tight in the waist. “Is she going home?”
“I doubt it,” Thomas responds from somewhere behind me. He sounds as bruised as I feel. “She doesn’t have her pelt with her.”
He mutters something about building a fire and wanders away, but I don’t follow. I stay in the kitchen long after he leaves, watching the water. Isla is out of sight now. She dove under and disappeared.
I’m hyperfocusing. That’s what Aunt E calls it. When I block out everything that I’m feeling and thinking and experiencing and fixate on one detail. I’m bleeding, I’m bruised, I’m chilled to the bone and my muscles are starting to shake with hunger, but all of that din seems to quiet if I single my focus on Isla and the water.
She stays under the waves for too long. She must be freezing. The ocean in late October isn’t particularly inviting, and I don’t know where she’s going or what she’s trying to do that’s worth braving the cold.
She rises from the sea slowly, the water running off her. She’s the only thing moving on the shore, standing out against the grey of the sky, exposed. She stands there, naked and shivering and sodden and stares out at the open ocean.
I don’t think she’d been swimming anywhere. She’d had no destination or plan. She just went to the water.
I grab my jacket from the back of a chair and hurry out the kitchen door, stumbling toward her on bare feet.
She’s struggling to come up the rocks and her curls — usually so buoyant and expressive — are plastered down with the weight of the water. I focus on the curls in an attempt to give her some privacy. I don’t know if selkies have the same modesty obsessions as humans, but she looked away when I shifted, so it only seems polite to return the favour.
I’m not bothered by her nakedness, though. Just bothered by the idea of the wind biting at her skin and the sharp rocks pricking at her bare feet.
“You’re going to freeze,” I call over the wind, holding out the jacket and moving toward her. When she looks up — startled, as if she didn’t see me — her eyes are wide. “Come here, wrap up.”
I settle my jacket around her shoulders and rub at her upper arms to bring some warmth to them. I should have grabbed a dry jacket, instead of putting a soaking one on her. That’s just going to make the cold worse. But she barely responds.
“Isla?” I ask, worry climbing. “Isla, are you okay?”
“S-sorry,” she says, her teeth chattering. Her lips are looking blue. “I just got o-overwhelmed a bit, I th-think.” She tries to smile, but it comes out like a grimace. “Look at me, I’m greeting, this is embarrassing.” She laughs. It’s thin and frayed and seems like she doesn’t have control of it. She keeps laughing until her breath comes out like gasps.
“Oh, God, I’m sorry. This is — I’m so sorry.” She gasps again, her voice far, far too high. “Shit, and you’re injured and you’re out here. Are you okay? I don’t know why I’m acting like this, I—”
“Isla? Hey, Isla, I think you’re having a panic attack,” I say, trying to pitch my voice low to be soft and soothing. “We need to get you inside, just try to breathe, alright, love?”
I don’t want to stress her even further by trying to get her to move, but standing on the shore, naked and shivering, isn’t going to help her calm down.
“Come on,” I say gently, putting my hand on the small of her back and propelling her forward. “Come on.”
“Sorry,” she whispers. “God, I’m being ridiculous, I’m sorry.”
“Hush. Come on, let’s get you in.”
My aunt has panic attacks like these, sometimes. That’s what my mum calls them — when Eris gets overwhelmed and everything starts pressing in on her. When I was a kid I didn’t get that. I didn’t know why the world would upset her, but I knew that Mum would make her tea and they’d sit in Eris’s room and I’d hear the low murmur of their voices through the wall.
“What’s the point of us?” Eris would ask.
Mum never seemed to have an answer, but she’d stay there until they both fell asleep. I’d find them in the morning when I got up to start breakfast, curled together in Aunt E’s giant canopy bed with red, puffy faces. Sometimes I’d consider climbing in and sandwiching myself between them and asking them to let me stay there a bit.
But I never did. Those moments weren’t for me.
Thomas is pacing the kitchen when we get to the house. I can see the worried, confused expression on his face, but he turns away and lets me guide Isla through the door in private. She’s shivering badly, her teeth chattering and her hair sending streams of freezing water down her back that pool around where my hand is still pressed. I direct her to the bathroom instead and sit her on the closed toilet while I turn on the water.
“You need to get warm, alright?” I tell her softly, checking the temperature. “Come on, in you go.” I lift my eyes to the sagging, water-spotted ceiling as she stands and drops the jacket to the floor, and then grips my hand tightly to step over the tub and into the shower.
There’s a thunk on the other side of the curtain as she sits heavily on the floor of the tub.
“Just try to breathe, yeah?” I call, adjusting myself next to the shower. “In, out. In, out.”
I can practically hear Thomas in my head, mocking me.
Always such a mother hen, Tan.
I don’t know why he finds it funny that I want to take care of people. Someone has to. Everyone I love is a walking wreck.
Isla’s not like that, though. Since the moment I met her she’s been in control and in charge, leaping into situations and steering this whole hunt. Even during the nuckelavee attack, when she was clearly frightened, she still pushed through it.
Her strength is incredible.
That’s why seeing her like this has me scared. I’ve been thinking of her as invincible and ruthless and driven, but here she is, breaking down in front of me.
Maybe it’s good for her to get it out a bit. Not that her panic attack is good, I mean. But rather, maybe she hit the breaking point. I know she’s been scared for Kit.
I’ve been scared too.
Stretching out my legs in front of me, I lean my head back against the panelled siding of the bathroom. I’ve a headache coming on — probably from the hunger. I’ll have to deal with that tomorrow. I dunno how much longer I’ll be able to last.
I should just call Aunt E and ask if I can use her donor, but the idea makes me cringe. Even if I’ve insisted to Thomas over and over again that there’s nothing inherently intimate about feeding, that’s not necessarily true. When things were different for my kind, maybe. But not anymore. Aunt E and her donor are together, same with my mum and hers. Eris and one of the ferry blokes have had their arrangement since they were teens, and my mum has some kind of long-distance thing going with a banker from Edinburgh who comes up once a month for her feeding.
Their relationships work for them, but it’s not what I would want. Holding the person I love at arms-length, meeting up with them once a month to get both my affection and blood fix. Maybe it works because Mum and Eris have each other. But I don’t have a sibling. I have Kit, but it’s not the same.
I want something permanent, I guess. Someone every day. Someone I can love, who loves me back.
It’s a strange thing, I suppose. A baobhan sith in love. But no stranger than our very existence. I know we’re born of blood and vengeance and tears — quite literally; our mothers have to make a blood offering to the ground when trying to conceive — but I don’t think that my mum and aunt and I are unique. I think our kind has always been capable of love.
It was just easier to get blood by force.
“How are you feeling?” I call over the water. There’s a low rattling breath, and then the sound of Isla moving.
“Alright,” she says, her voice weak. She sniffles and lets out a watery laugh. “Oh, God, I hate crying. I never cry.”
“I cry all the time,” I say as brightly as I can. “Reading. Watching telly. You name it. I’m an absolute ninny about things, so no judgement here.”
Isla is silent for a moment, and when she speaks again, her voice is low and soft.
“I wish my mum were here.” She sniffles.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I can do this. I can talk her through it.
“What was her name?”
“Iona,” I repeat, rolling the word over my tongue. “That’s beautiful. What was she like?”
Isla shifts on the floor of the shower, and I move a bit closer so I can hear her over the steady patter of the water.
“Really kind,” she says. “Way kinder than me. And funny. I’m not really like her. My brother is, though.” She pauses, then sighs. “She was kind of a dreamer, I think. I didn’t realise it at the time, but she had all these big ideas and always went with her emotions. She was just brilliant to be around.”
I think that does sound like Isla, to be honest. She’s kinder and more emotional than she thinks she is.
“My mum’s like that a bit,” I say instead. “Me and my aunt call her a free spirit.”
“Are you close?”
I nod, and then realise she can’t see me.
“Yeah, we are. She and my aunt are kind of my best friends. Mum’s the funny one, Eris is the brain, and I’m the responsible one.”
Isla sighs, and I hear the water shift around her.
“They sound brilliant.”
“They are,” I respond immediately. “I’ll introduce you, when this is all over. I think you’d love them.” A small laugh slips out at the thought of my mother cooking for Isla. She’ll fall apart when she sees Mum’s kitchen. It’s easy to imagine here there, sitting at the large pine table, the hanging copper pans reflecting her image. Mum would love her. She loves blunt people.
“I’d like that,” Isla says, and then sniffles again. “Ugh. God, I’m a mess.” I hear a shampoo bottle pop, and I move away from the shower a bit. She doesn’t need me this close now that I know she’s alright. “My hair is a wreck. My mum would skin me for how it looks. I sort of want to shave it off. Start from scratch.”
My heart twinges a bit. I love her hair. It’s huge and glorious, and makes her look like she’s filling up every space she enters with warmth and happiness. I like watching it when it gets caught in the wind, because it looks like it has a life of its own. I’ve been wondering what it feels like. It looks soft.
“Kit has some clippers around here, I think. We could do it now, if you want,” I tell her, dragging my mind back. It’s her hair. If she wants it gone, I can help with that.
There’s a pause.
“Maybe after we find him.”
It’s the first time she’s indicated that she may stay on land — at least for a bit — and I have to close my eyes and bite my lip to contain my silent celebration.
I hope she does. I hope she gets to come home and meet my family. I’m being selfish a bit, I know. Aunt E says I’m clingy. “Like a wee octopus.” Thomas used to say I’m like a dog, eager for affection. Kit just says I’m lonely. I think those are all shitty ways to put it. What’s wrong with just liking someone? What’s wrong with wanting to have someone? I don’t get why we’re supposed to pretend that we don’t need intimacy and companionship in our lives. It’s been hard for me to find that, and I’ve never understood why people laugh at me when I try.
It’s a lot for me to be thinking already, I know. But I like Isla. I like that she’s… Isla. She’s upfront and uncomplicated in the best way possible. She’s bright and blunt and shockingly human, all things considered. And she’s loyal. I think I could use someone like Isla in my life.
Even if it’s just for a bit, I hope she stays. Even if nothing comes of some of the things I’m feeling and she just stays a friend, I hope she stays. I think it would be good for her. I think I could be good for her.
She said being human is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be. We don’t have to be.
The shower cuts off with a clang and I scoot back further away from the tub as her hand reaches out from behind the curtain. I grab a towel and hand it to her, and then stand.
My legs shake a bit from the exertion, and my head is spinning.
“Hey, hey,” Isla says, appearing at my side. A wet hand goes to my back, and she blinks up at me with her wide brown eyes. “Oh God, you don’t look good. I’m sorry, you’ve been taking care of my freak out but you look like you’re going to drop.”
“Stop,” I argue. “I’m fine. Just a bit weak. I need to feed.” I hold onto the wall and steady myself. “I’m going to stay here for the night, though. I dunno if I can make it back.”
“Of course you’re staying here,” Isla says, grabbing a discarded t-shirt off the floor and running it through her hair. I don’t know why she doesn’t just use another towel, but I’m a bit too nauseated to question it. “Come on, Kit’s room. Move it.”
She herds me out of the bathroom and into the bedroom without time to argue. I wouldn’t anyway, though. It’s kind of nice, having her boss me around for my own benefit. It’s usually me doing it to other people.
“Get in bed, I’ll be back in a few,” she says, half buried inside Kit’s closet. I knew she was stealing his clothes — I recognised some of them, and the rest of have been clearly too huge on her — but for the first time it hits me that she really has nothing. Has she even been wearing a bra? I should really sort that out for her.
“Whatever you’re thinking, stop,” she says, smiling, and then escapes the room. Her bare feet leave wet footsteps behind her.
I dig up the large jumper I wore yesterday and shuck off Thomas’s ill-fitting jeans and collapse into the bed with a heavy sigh. I really, really don’t feel well. I was pushing my feeding already, and between shifting last night and getting injured today….
A shudder rolls through me as I think of the nuckelavee. I swear I can still taste the smell of it, and the memory gives me the boke. Mum is going to lose it when she finds out, and for good reason. They’re horrifying. I’d only ever heard of them in passing, because they’re rare. And they don’t just pop up. They’ve got to be summoned.
And that takes blood.
Thomas’s parents and Cormac took on the last one to pop up in Scotland (as far as I know) and that was almost twenty years ago. And considering Thomas’s parents died during the fight, Cormac never talked about it much.
I suppose when I think of it like that, we were unnaturally lucky today.
I wonder if Thomas is okay. Someone should really check on him.
When Isla returns, she’s wearing a massive jumper and a pair of trackies that are rolled to a comical degree to fit her short legs, and she’s holding a mug of tea in each hand. She steps up onto the bed and wobbles precariously for a moment before sitting down.
“I don’t know how you take your tea,” she says, grinning. “So one is sweet and one isn’t. Take your pick.”
“Which do you prefer?”
“I don’t actually like tea, so neither. Pick.”
I take the sweetened one and give her a wee cheers and drink deep. It’s bad. It’s overly sugared and I don’t think she heated the water all the way and it’s extremely weak.
But she made me tea. Usually I’m the one doing it.
Being in bed has made all the tension and hunger and pain hit me tenfold. I thought I was going to be able to keep it together, but my eyes are dragging down and my limbs feel heavy. I sip the tea slowly, trying to absorb some of the caffeine, but the combination of the heat and the softness of the blankets is doing a number on me.
“Thank you,” I mumble, setting the mug down on the bedside table and burying myself deeper into the blankets. They still smell a bit like brine from when we put Thomas to bed wet last night.
“You’ve made me about forty cups of tea, I figured I could repay the favour,” Isla responds, reaching out to carefully brush my fringe away from my face. Her fingers are warm, and I tilt into them a bit. “Especially after you helped me out there. Really, I’m so—”
“Apologise again and I’ll bite you,” I yawn, opening one eye to try to glare at her. I don’t think I look very intimidating. But I’m not exactly trying to.
Isla curls a finger around a strand of my hair and tucks it behind my ear. Her knuckles graze my cheek with the movement, and the rasp of her dry skin feels like an electric burn.
“Go to sleep. We’ll figure out your feeding thing in the morning. Maybe I can work on Thomas,” she says, picking up the other mug and carefully sitting up. I reach out and grab her hand.
“Look, I know he said he didn’t want to help, but I really think—”
“No,” I say, pausing. “I meant, don’t go. Sorry.” I scrunch my face up, suddenly realising how terribly awkward I’m being. “I mean, also leave Thomas alone, he’s enough of a wee mess. But mostly I meant would you stay?”
I don’t have any excuse or reason to give her. Anything I say would be complete pish, and I’m fairly sure Isla has a hunner yard bullshit detector. I just want her close. I want someone close. I feel awful, and even if I won’t admit it, the nuckelavee still has me shaken up.
Clingy like a wee octopus. Needy like a dog. Lonely.
“Yeah,” Isla says, smiling. “Yeah, alright. Budge in a bit.”
I don’t have to move far. The bed is by no means luxurious, but I move over enough that Isla can wriggle beneath the blankets. She turns to her side to face me and props her head on her arm. I slide down so we’re on the same level.
She smells good. On a logical level, I know she just smells like Kit’s shampoo, a scent I’m extremely familiar with, one I smell almost every day. But my brain is rewiring my scent memories. The sharp, citrusy shampoo and faux-leather bar soap smells now belong exclusively to her.
“Do you need anything else?” she whispers. I shake my head.
“No. I’m just going to try to sleep.”
She wiggles on the mattress a bit, trying to get comfortable, and it shifts with her weight.
“Tell me how to help.”
“Really, I’m good, thank you—”
“I like noise to fall asleep,” I say, scrunching my face and giving up. “I like hearing talking or just noise?”
“I can read to you,” Isla says, going to sit up. “Kit has so many books in here, and I should read more anyway. Mum always said books teach everyone how to be human.”
“No!” I say, reaching for her again. Oh, God, I can’t fall asleep to her reading from one of the hideous romance books Kit and I share. “No, I don’t think those books are good guides. You could talk to me?” I whisper. “Tell me about the ocean. The good parts.”
“It’s all good parts,” Isla responds immediately, lying back down.
“Tell me about your favourite parts, then. Since Kit doesn’t have a telly.”
“You know,” Isla says, grinning, “he claims it’s because they’re bad for your brain, but I think it’s just because he’s cheap.”
“Oh, he’s so cheap,” I agree. Isla laughs, and I can feel the whole mattress move again. “He reuses tea bags.”
“And here I thought tea couldn’t get worse.”
“So go on, then. The ocean.”
Isla bites her lip for a moment.
“I like the quietness of it,” she says, her voice soft. “I like being under the water and being carried along in the complete stillness of it. I like just… existing in it. Being calm.”
“That sounds lovely,” I mumble, yawning half the words. “I love calm. I don’t like quiet, though. Sometimes I go to this hill near where my mum lives. It’s all boxed in with mountains, and I just lay in the grass and listen to the land. If I stay there long enough, I sometimes think I can feel the earth moving.”
“Like the tide,” Isla whispers, and I nod.
“That’s what’s calming for me. I like hearing and feeling proof of things living, I suppose.” I’m not sure if I’ve ever said that out loud. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really voiced it to myself, actually. But when the words come out, I know they’re true. “I like feeling connected to something other than myself.”
There’s a soft touch to my hand, and I open my eyes again to see that Isla’s reached out to trace her finger down the middle of my palm.
“You should go to sleep.”
I yawn again and nod.
“You know, being human doesn’t have to be lonely,” I whisper, and close my hand around her fingers. “You’ve already got a friend if you stay on land.”
Her fingers lightly squeeze my palm and then stay there.
“You won’t fall asleep if you keep talking.”
I scrunch up my nose, and then nod.
“So. The ocean. Being just off the island is my favourite,” she whispers. “It’s all open water. Nothing to stop you or close you in. If you keep going, you could swim to the other side of the world, and it feels like you….”
If I listen closely, I can hear her breathing beside me. In. Out. In. Out. Steady and sure like the tide.