I was sort of half-shacked up with this guy named Crowjack at the time. He had a swim-up apartment in the Gillage, wrote plays full of halibut whinging about their fathers and the pressures of masculinity. After the show, his or mine, we’d all go down to Platypunk’s dad’s bar, the Great White Whaler, and do some blow. Free pints of sour beer with shot glasses full of real topside air dropped in. Platypunk Sr. always had great air. Kept it in a couple of scuba tanks behind the bar. You had to be in the know to get any, know the handshake, that sort of thing. I was a hard drinker back then. Part of the uniform. A little oxy, a whiff of nitro, pound that garbage beer, lick a shaker of ozone off my wrist, throw back a shot of smog and suck a slice of seaweed to take the edge off. But Crowjack loved to drink. He had his own tank and mask at home, and half the days, he’d just float on the current that flowed between the bedroom and the kitchen with his mask on, sucking down oxy until he thought he was God. Platypunk always said he was a douche bag and I guess he was right.
“Hey, baby Bayou. Let’s get outta here,” Crowjack slurred at us Upon That Fateful Night. “Let’s go somewhere we can really get wrecked. Where they’ve got the good stuff, on tap, none of these canned farts.”
I was feeling good. Scratch that. I was feeling fucking spectacular. Blowhole had hauled our first full house that night. Two separate fistfights broke out during the bridge of “I Wanna Be Mutated,” which is how you spell a truly epic show. I should’ve known what he meant, but I was feeling too nice to do my usual trick of sifting through everything Crowjack said in case there was something fucked up floating around in there.
“Naw, man,” said Platypunk. “I don’t do that shit. It’s hardcore, balls-to-the-wall boring. You shouldn’t either, Miss B. We got lunch with the guys from Oily Penguin tomorrow. Besides, your mom would kill you if she found out.”
When you think about it, it’s all Platypunk’s fault. The number one bull’s-eye easiest-peasiest way to make sure I’ll do something is to tell me how it would piss off my mother. So, Crowjack and I blew out of the Great White Whaler like a couple of speedboats and started the long swim up to the surface. Because of course that’s what he meant. That’s where you get the strongest air. Where it gets you—and all for free. I couldn’t believe how warm the water was that close to land. How blue. How clear. It felt like hot velvet diamonds rolling over my skin. Our heads busted up out of a wave into a liquid gold-red twilight and a wind like cocaine-moonshine. Crowjack just huffed it all in. His pupils blew out so big and black! He threw himself backward against the next wave, giggling and paddling around like a kid. It didn’t hit me quite as hard. I took shallow breaths—too much to swallow all at once. I looked at the sun instead. My first sunset, sinking in the sky like a goldfish on fire. I looked at my skin in the light of the breathing world, glittering like a disco ball where the sun bounced and jangled off me. Off in the distance I saw an island with nothing on it but a tower with a light on top of it. Below the tower, people moved. I could see their shadows on the long grass.
People. Others. Humans.
“I wanna go home,” I whispered to Crowjack. “I feel sick.”
And I did. I ducked under the whitecaps for a minute to get my head on straight.
“What are you talking about? We just got here! I’m not even buzzed yet.”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, you are, dumbass. You’re such a lightweight.”
I was only teasing. But you can’t tease anybody who writes plays about their father. Crowjack hauled off and punched me in the eye. Punched! Not slapped. Closed-fist. Like he meant it. Like he’d been holding that in. Well, fuck that for nothing. Bye, bye, Crowjack. I wasn’t in love with him anymore, anyway. He cried almost every time we had sex. And I was a far better swimmer. With a couple of kicks, I got well away from that cliché little scene. A couple more and I could hardly see him. Only a little shape in the waves, flailing his arms and yelling that he was sorry. Who cares, lightweight? I might like a bruise or two in good fun—I look tough as hell with bruises. But back then, I didn’t take that action from anybody. I swam and swam, ducking down below and popping up again, feeling my strength, feeling my speed. I was pretty hammered by then, I admit. I wasn’t paying attention. I got too close to the island. One of those people-shadows saw me and stopped moving around. Then, for absolutely no goddamned reason, it jumped into the water and started swimming after me! I should have just gone down bubble, but I was too shocked and drunk to move. The shadow turned out to be a man, a big, nice-looking man with a good beard and thick hair the color of the sun. He grabbed me around the neck and started hauling me to shore.
“It’s okay!” the man yelled back. “I got you! You’re gonna be fine!”
“What? Stop! Hold on!” I coughed and spluttered. The way he was dragging me, I kept getting wind up my nose.
“Good thing I saw you! I thought you were driftwood for a minute,” he went on, panting with the effort of saving me. “Or a seal. But better safe than sorry! You almost drowned!”
“This is ridiculous,” I snarled, and squirmed out of his grip in one quick duck-and-twist. “I don’t need your help! Do I look like I need your help?”
I don’t believe John Heron really saw me before that moment. He was in Burly Savior Noble Guardian of Life mode when he grabbed me. All he saw was a girl in the water. But he sure saw me then. Six long feet of green crystal scales and blue switchblade-fins and really almost pornographically suggestive gills and bruised cheekbone and half-shaved-off red hair. But I saw him, too. He had the warmest green eyes and the kindest way of holding his mouth, even when he was dumbfounded and gawking like a damn fool. Those muscles didn’t hurt, either, even if they were a weird brownish color. He was handsome as hell, and most importantly, he didn’t look like anyone I’d ever met in my life. He looked new. We treaded water in total silence for, well, god knows how long. Finally, he said:
“Are you a mermaid?”
“That’s racist,” I snapped. My head was starting to spin. Crowjack was right. The air was amazing up there.
He backpedaled immediately. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it; I don’t . . . What happened to your eye?”
“Bad boyfriend,” I answered, and touched my face. Still tender.
Then it happened. I couldn’t help it. I laughed in this weird way that had nothing to do with me, this soft, coquettish, flirty laugh like a fucking sea lion in heat. Gross. It’s the air, you know. Everything that came after, I blame on that stone-cold bitch oxygen. She hates me and wants me to suffer. I loved him. I loved him like breathing. I loved him because I was breathing. I was reeling on the whiskey-wind, my vision gone to oil and honey as I pounded shot after shot of pure unfiltered sky.
We screwed under the stars on the beach below his lighthouse. It wasn’t very good for me. He didn’t vibrate the water with his legs to signal his interest. His torso didn’t flush that delicate shade of blue that really gets me going. He didn’t clack his swim bladders against each other to make the secret song of Atlantean sex. He didn’t even have claspers or a cloaca. We had to do it his way. It took forever. But it certainly was new. I straddled him and clacked my swim bladders deep in my throat and I could feel the blue coming on in my chest, lighting up his dumb handsome face with the light of another dimension. Afterward, we swam out together so I could sober up. He told me about himself. He was an orphan, found screaming on the shore by Angus Heron, the old man who ran the lighthouse, and raised to keep that light on like it could save the world. It was romantic. Like a fairy tale. Like a song written by someone other than me. I told him about my music. Sang him a bit of “Lemuria Calling.”
“I have a secret,” he said, floating in the shallows, little harmless green jellyfish glowing along the strand like stage lights.
“Don’t we all?”
“I want to tell you mine.” He looked at me intensely, through his long wet gold hair. He looked at me like I was the answer at the back of a math book. “I . . . I can talk to fish. Not just fish. Dolphins and whales and seals and eels and scallops and crabs. I can talk to them, and when they talk back, I understand everything they say.”
I laughed. “So? Who can’t?”
John looked hurt. He actually blushed. “Well, pretty much everybody on the planet but me, actually. The truth is, I’m . . . I’m a superhero. People call me Avast.” I crooked one crystal, scaly eyebrow. “I fight . . . you know . . . injustice and villainy. I’m part of a group. The Union. With a bunch of other guys. Kid Mercury, Grimdark, the Insomniac, the Unstoppable Id, Chiaroscuro.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. I didn’t care about any of those stupid names. They sounded like particularly shitty scene bands. “I’m on the planet, John.”
But he was still in a huff because I wasn’t impressed by his little party trick. “On the planet. Not under it.”
“That’s such a mammalian thing to say,” I sighed. “‘The planet’ is seventy percent water, you know.”
John’s face broke apart. He gave in. He cared that much what I thought. “I know, I know. I’m sorry. Please don’t be mad.”
I rolled my eyes. “You can talk to fish. Fine. Can you breathe underwater? Or at least hold your breath for a really long time?”
Slowly, John Heron nodded. I narrowed my eyes. My catch of the day was starting to smell suspicious.
“How old are you?”
This was clearly the big one. He didn’t want to say. John couldn’t look at me and talk at the same time. He fiddled with some invisible thing in the water. “About . . . about eighty-five?”
He didn’t look a day out of college.
“Let me see your feet,” I sighed. But I already knew. You have got to be kidding me. What are the fucking chances?
I hadn’t noticed before. I know we had sex and everything, but I’m not really into feet that way. I checked under his arms and under his hair. John Heron, alleged human male, had webbed toes, gills, and tiny vestigial skull-fins the color of the jellyfish on the beach.
“Mystery solved,” I purred in his ear. “You’re one of us. Half one of us, anyway. Welcome to Freak City. Watch out—it gets real stupid here.”
• • •
And indeed it did get real stupid, real fast.
I shouldn’t have gotten knocked up. It’s so easy when you’re doing it with other fish! If it’s not mating season, I’m not releasing eggs and it’s all good times and kippers for breakfast after. But John’s got a lot of mammal in him, and I guess the rules are different. Probably what happened to his poor mother, whoever she was. Girl thought she was going topside for a bit of blow and strange and all of a sudden—BAM. Egged up something terrible. Atlantean girls go from zero to mum in about six weeks, so I just . . . stuck around. I couldn’t face my mother or Platypunk or Crowjack. I couldn’t face being on stage screaming out “Atlantean Idiot” with a big ol’ baby belly. It is the opposite of punk rock.
Illustration by Annie Wu.
The best part of giving birth was the look on John Heron’s face. I don’t know what he saw in his sex-ed filmstrips, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a green girl squatting in the ocean in broad daylight while she pushes out an aquamarine egg the size of a dinghy and tries to hide what’s happening from the kids in their floaties and swim trunks. He thought the daddy’s job was to smoke a cigar and change a couple of diapers, not to wait until nightfall to drag the egg onto the sand and secrete a nutritive acid from his eyes to dissolve the shell. I don’t think I ever loved him again as much as I did while he wept over our son, fire-colored gunk hissing and popping on the eggshell, laughing at the total bugfuck absurdity of what was happening to him. When the glassy blue egg had half-melted away, I reached my arms down into the last of the glittering yolk. I felt tiny fingers clutch my hand.
Look, I have never been anything but hardcore since I said my first swear, but when my son grabbed onto me for the first time, it was like a harpoon in the heart. Nothing ever hurt so much or felt so good. I lifted him out of the egg and held him in my arms. He didn’t cry. He held on to my hair in his fists.
Of course, he wasn’t him yet. Atlanteans are born hermaphroditic, telepathic, about as far along as a human two-year-old, and completely transparent. We pigment up over childhood. In kindergarten, most of us still have clear patches all over. I counted diamond ribs through crystal skin.
“It’ll be a boy in about a year,” I whispered to John.
We both stared at our child. I was amazed any creature could be so perfect and beautiful. John was amazed that his kid looked like a glass Christmas ornament of the baby Jesus.
We named him Angus. John insisted, after his foster father. I only gave in because everything else about Angus was all me. You’d never know he had any mammal in the mix at all. When he cried, it sounded like whale song. But when we were alone I called him Azure. A proper pedigreed Atlantean name for the secret prince of the sea. Because I still hadn’t told John who I was. Who my mother was. I liked just being Bayou for somebody in the world. Just being loved. But after Angus was born, we had to go home. Hatchlings just can’t live on land. It’d be like filling a baby’s bottle full of rum and cramming it up his nose all day. A growing boy needs salt water.
This is the part you’ve been waiting for. I know what stories fill the seats, and it’s not the one about the punk rock alligator princess getting knocked up. That’s what happens before the real story. Or offstage during an act break. Babies just sort of happen to heroes at random moments, like a new superpower, and then they’re off to the real excitement. But Angus and I happened to each other. Lucky accidents. All the way down, his gentle little voice spoke in my head, and my rough, air-shredded whiskey-whisper murmured in his. I kept looking over at John, swimming so beautifully, like he’d never walked in his life, wondering if he could hear us. But I guess he was too human for that.
Mama, what are those?
Those are orcas, Azure. We’ll sneak out while Daddy’s sleeping and play hide-and-seek with them, just you wait.
Mama, why is the ocean blue?
Because blue is the color of love, my darling. Everything good is blue.
We glided up the long road to the palace, and for once, it looked wonderful to me, in all its rusted trash-heap glory. I was going to present my mother with her first grandchild, with the chorus to a song I hadn’t even known I was playing, with the future. I flushed pink with pride. She’ll love you, I told John, though it was even money she’d hate him. Don’t be nervous. You’re coming home. Atlantis never turns away her own. Maybe we’ll even find your parents. One of them, anyway. You look kind of like this girl I know who plays the drums in Zombie Starfish and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
But the doors of the palace were shut. Not just shut, barricaded with the masts of the Flying Dutchman and the Mary Celeste. Not just barricaded but guarded by two burly Atlanteans, a giant squid with anger issues, and a great white shark. Not just shut and barricaded and guarded but sporting a big sign with scrawly, terrible penmanship:
COMMONERS KEEP OUT BY ORDER OF MEGALODON
(AND ALSO BAYOU WHO CAN FUCK RIGHT OFF)
Six weeks is a long time to be gone, I guess. All the clubs had shut down till further notice. Platypunk and his family had gone into hiding. No one had any plankton and no one had any hope and no one had any idea what the hell was going on. Half the royal family was in lockup—Davy Jones’s Memorial Hospital for the Violent and Insane. And some asshole named Megalodon ruled Atlantis with an iron fin. But no one had seen the boss himself, only his muscle. So, what did we do? We did what anyone would do when they’re young and in love and looking after their first baby.
We beat the shit out of a shark.