Klein Kelly’s body fell from the ninth-story window and plummeted into the flooded mega-campus below, puncturing the water’s glasslike surface with a sickening thunk. Foul water grabbed at the weight of her sneakers and her thick denim jacket. She was soaked, instantly, and sinking fast. She twisted, shrugged, and jerked around in the water—until her shoes and jacket slipped off, and she was left in only her broccoli-print leggings and black tank, the grimy water clinging in a film on her skin.
As she kicked her way towards the surface, her fingers and toes lengthened, a thin membrane webbing together in between them, and thin slits opened up into gills on either side of her torso. Her ribs ached, body working overtime to suck in water through her shirt. Klein inhaled a mouthful of water. Above, the water rippled twice more, two more bodies joining her in the putrid depths. She waited for both of them to change before popping her head through the surface. Waning daylight, combined with the water’s sickly luminescence, cast an eerie pallor over her surroundings.
“Christ,” said Klein. She was still aching from the impact. “I hate both of you.”
Isla, who’d pushed her, rolled her eyes. “You’re alive, aren’t you?”
She supposed so. The change had left her jittery and a bit nauseous, like she’d chugged hyper-strength coffee. The only reason vomit was a distant possibility was because she was too busy concentrating on not drowning. She looked between her friends of six days—Isla, eyes green and doe-like in a white face; and Paisley, floating absentmindedly on her back amid clouds of red hair. They seemed utterly unperturbed by the filthy water they’d insisted on turning into an impromptu swimming pool.
Exploring Old Town in fish form was, apparently, the “cool” thing to do.
When Klein didn’t answer, Isla swam over to lay a hand on her arm. Klein had never felt more alien during her brief time on campus than she did at that moment, when the white-brown contrast between her arm and Isla’s screamed up at her through the gritty film.
“Look, Klein,” Isla said. “You’re new here. We get it—it’s a lot to take in—”
“Especially as a transfer student,” Paisley interjected.
Isla nodded her agreement. “These things might seem odd, but we’re just trying to help.”
“I know that,” said Klein. She remembered the initial panic that had nearly consumed her that first night in her dorm room across town. Her stepfather was dead, her mother was having trouble paying the bills, and if Klein wanted to stay in school at all, her only option was to move home for in-state tuition. In the span of one week during the summer before her sophomore year, she’d packed up her belongings, driven across the country, attended her stepfather’s funeral, and enrolled in the university in her hometown. The shock of moving from the sunny, multicultural desert back to her old, wet, isolated stomping grounds—where the only people with skin as dark as her family’s were the cooks in the dining hall, or the janitors in the art museum—had threatened to collapse her chest.
But now she had Isla, and Paisley.
They were smiling at her, now.
“Come on,” Paisley said. “We’ll show you the club.”
Klein followed them, doggy-paddling. Growing up in a coastal town had taught her to swim by necessity. But she had never quite gotten as good at it as some people seemed to be, despite what had happened with the tsunami and the flooding years ago, and the fact that about a quarter of the town had started sprouting gills when they touched water.
Isla and Paisley swam like mermaids, their movements quick and effortless, but they kept pace with her, and a few minutes of even the slowest swimming brought them to the center of Old Town. The square was deserted when Klein considered it from eye level with the water: the buildings above the water line towering, crumbling, empty. Then, after exchanging a glance with the others, the three of them slipped beneath the surface.
The city came alive once submerged. Music spilled from every other doorway. Street vendors, their carts tethered to old street lamps, praised their wares around mouthfuls of bubbles: gill cream, toxic seaweed supplements, aged cheese infused with rotted fish. The windows of the structures that hadn’t been crushed or washed away were alight with the greenish-yellow glow of underwater lighting. Klein watched the crowds of other fish-people navigate their underwater sanctuary.
Paisley tugged her elbow. Klein found herself drawn into a cement building behind her friends. Mold grew up the wall, just inside the entrance. The room opened up into a lopsided circle punctuated here and there with furniture too heavy to float and gilled clubgoers swaying in the current with drinks in their hands. Throwing her hands above her head, Isla drifted onto the dance floor, where she shook and shimmied along with screeching rock music so loud Klein felt the tickle in her gills.
Debris was a tangible crunch under her feet as she and Paisley approached the bar. With each step, she felt slight, imperceptible gravity shifts. The wobbly feeling of the water between her webbed toes told her she could bear down, if she wanted, and walk underwater as if she were on land; or push off, if she wanted, and swim, as nature preferred.
Klein hesitantly mirrored Paisley and leaned her elbows on the bar.
“Paisley,” she said, her voice discreet. “I’m not old enough to drink. And I don’t have a fake.”
Paisley cast her a sly glance. “I’m not going to order you alcohol.” She inclined her head toward the back hallway. Klein followed her gaze until her eyes landed on two signs, one that read “Restrooms” and a smaller, more discreet one that read “Feedings.” “Have you fed recently?”
Her throat twitched. Saliva pooled in the corners of her mouth. She swallowed against a wave of nausea. Moving away had mitigated the worst of the mysterious symptoms she’d inherited from her hometown, and the lesser of them, she managed through water exposure as simple as frequent hand-washing or showers that ran slightly longer than usual. Hundreds of miles from home, all her fish body seemed to require was wetness. Here, though, she doubted she’d be so lucky. She doubted she would be able to avoid it. Had she fed? No, she hadn’t. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
Klein is five years old when a high sea wave rolls in off of Larchmont City’s beaches. Everything in its path, including Klein’s childhood home, is either destroyed or submerged. The mayor declares a state of emergency, and disaster relief pours in from every direction. To five-year-old Klein, it looks as if half the town has become a swimming pool. She misses a month of school as the city recovers. It is the single most exciting event of her short life, so far.
Paisley studied Klein expectantly.
Klein shook her head. She couldn’t speak.
“That’s what I thought,” Paisley said, grinning.
They sat in silence while Paisley tried to catch the bartender’s attention. Klein tried not to think about what was coming next. Right after she’d moved back home, her mother had insisted on attending therapy as a family to process their grief, and in that moment, Klein thought back to what the therapist had suggested—grounding techniques, he’d called them, to mitigate panic. She focused in turn on various objects around the room: the multi-colored liquor bottles lining the shelves behind the bar; the snake tattoo that stretched, between gills, down the female bartender’s exposed back; blue-purple-white lighting rendered more chilling by the rippling, underwater glow. She wondered how many other clubgoers were there for illicit activities, how many were even aware of what was happening.
When the bartender came around, Paisley tucked a sopping wet fifty-dollar bill into her hand. Isla appeared at Klein’s elbow a moment later. Klein forced herself to follow her friends, and the bartender, to the back of the building. After they passed the restrooms, the hallway continued past three doors, through a curtain, and finally opened up into a setup that mimicked the blood drives Klein had grown used to seeing on campus at her other school.
A group of long reclining chairs dotted the cramped storage room. Only one of the chairs was occupied, by a pale, bruised boy with a head of blonde curls. He looked like a freshman. An older man with long, dirty brown hair had the younger boy’s wrist in his mouth, his back turned to the girls. Klein’s gaze stuck on the boy’s fingers, twitching just a few inches away from the man’s grip; on the occasional deep red drip-drop of blood falling from his wrist. She tore her eyes away.
“Wait here,” said the bartender.
This was her chance to escape. But before she could invent an excuse to leave, the bartender had returned with a burly man in tow. The man had a purple-haired girl draped over his shoulder. He dumped her unceremoniously onto the chair in front of the girls, where she slumped, obviously unconscious. The bartender handed them three straws, then she and the burly man retreated.
Paisley passed around the straws.
“Who are these people?” Klein asked in a hurried whisper. “Why aren’t they awake?”
Isla looked pityingly at her. “They’re drugged, duh.” When Klein didn’t respond, she continued. “Some students work in the dining hall part time. Others volunteer to be drugged and used as feeders. It’s no big deal.”
Klein felt the room sway. She shut her eyes, fast, against the wave of dizziness.
This is your hometown, she thought. Something else told her, You are a newcomer here. How could it be that she was both?
She’d grown used to feeding in secret, even as gills sprouted across town, like a new fashion trend. It made her feel naughty, dirty, subhuman. It wasn’t normal, no matter how common it became. She hated herself each time she did it, and she often put it off as long as possible. The fact that it had become so common, casual enough to be done in public, in a group, threw her hopelessly off balance.
She breathed deeply. By the time she felt steady enough to open her eyes again, her friends had already bent over the unconscious girl. Paisley tilted her head to the side for a moment, as if considering where best to begin, then stuck her straw into the side of the girl’s neck with a polite squelch. Her lips wrapped around the straw. Dark liquid traveled up into her mouth. After a moment, she leaned back to lick her lips. Her tongue and teeth were tinged red.
Klein realized her entire body was shaking. She found herself backing away, stumbling into other chairs in her haste to put space between herself and her blood-drinking friends.
“I—I can’t,” she said, in response to Paisley’s quizzical look. “I can’t do this.”
She ducked through the curtain, out into the hallway, and slid her back down the wall until she was sitting and her legs were less likely to buckle. She let her head fall into her hands.
You do not need this, she told herself firmly.
Her friends’ voices drifted out towards her.
“Think she’ll be okay?” asked Paisley.
There was a pause. Klein imagined Isla nodding in that overly-confident way of hers.
“Oh, yeah. Definitely.” Isla giggled. “She’ll do it. We’ll just have to get her a live one.”
Larchmont City rebuilds. Everything touched by the flooding is relocated elsewhere: the monstrous university, the hospital, churches, three branches of Coastal Bank. The water never recedes. No one is able to pinpoint a disturbance that could have triggered the tsunami, though some of the more superstitious locals tell tales of nature punishing the Earth for climate change in the most forceful way possible. City officials order residents to relocate a minimum distance from the exclusion zone on the eastern side of town, but the damage is already done.
One day, halfway through first grade, Klein and her classmates are on the playground during recess when a sudden thunderstorm hits. Twelve out of thirty children have gills open up on their ribs, their hands and feet webbing together. Over the years, the symptoms expand from this water-activated half-transformation to include headache, dizziness, extreme thirst, muscle aches, and stomach pain after a prolonged absence from water, and an occasional, all-consuming need to feed.
Klein learns to take long showers: the more water her skin absorbs, the more human she feels.
By some stroke of luck, Klein managed to make it through the first month of the semester while evading her friends on the feeding issue. Paisley was persistent, yet polite, while Isla was slightly more blunt with her suggestions. The intent was clear: the in-crowd at City U—at least those affected—fed regularly. Paisley said it was fun, a normal, natural part of being gill-gifted college students. Isla insisted it was a matter of keeping up appearances. Klein suspected it had more to do with maintaining some sense of power and superiority over others, the ones who didn’t feed.
As hot, humid August faded into a wet September, Klein found herself distracted from the imminent hurricane season by increased coursework, and a guy named Arlo in her history class. He was the kind of white guy who thought it was “cool” that she was biracial, but who would’ve also flipped shit and accused her of being “too political” if she’d dared wear a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. He wasn’t perfect. But he was cute, a great kisser, and easy to talk to, and when they studied together in the dining hall or in the dorm lounge, she felt, for once, like she blended in.
She told Isla and Paisley about Arlo. She wasn’t used to having good things to share, and even though her friends sometimes made her uncomfortable, they were making an effort to include her, so she felt obligated to reciprocate. She kept them updated on her progress through the bases (after Isla explained them to her) and promised to let them know when “it” finally happened. The other girls encouraged her to feed on him (“I find feeding easier if you let your guard down,” Paisley said. “I used to be scared of it too.”) and experiment with how far she could go. Everyone seemed to need different amounts of blood, they assured her. The only way to know was to test it out.
Klein pointedly did not inform them that she already knew exactly how much blood she needed.
The first hurricane of the season began to bear down on the coast early in the month. The rain arrived days in advance, soaking the city thoroughly before the real storm had actually hit. Classes were canceled as a precaution, meaning Klein found herself with an extra-long weekend and an unexpected amount of free time. She considered heading home to be with her mother, as she felt she had a responsibility to do, but the thought of spending more than a few hours in a dark house with no food in the fridge and her severely depressed mother was enough to make her cling tightly to campus, despite her struggles to fit in.
Early Friday evening, she knocked on Arlo’s door, backpack bulging with plastic containers of food she’d smuggled out of the dining hall.
“Hey, K,” he said, opening the door. A tan collared polo accentuated his warm brown eyes and wavy strawberry-blonde hair. He swept her into a big hug. She breathed in the smell of him and let it comfort her, just for a moment.
“Hey yourself.” She broke away and moved towards his coffee table, where she began to unpack her food haul. “I wasn’t sure what you’d like, so I just grabbed a little of everything.”
Klein felt Arlo’s eyes on her as she laid everything out on the table: burritos from the burrito bar, sushi, veggie sausage, alfredo pasta, dry cereal (Lucky Charms and Cinnamon Toast Crunch), towering sandwiches, and spicy stir-fry noodles.
“Awesome,” he said. “Thanks so much. I’ll make sure I get dinner next time.”
When she looked up at him, she noticed his eyes traveling her body, and she wondered if tonight would be the night she finally felt comfortable enough to sleep with him.
Klein tucked that thought neatly away so it wouldn’t show on her expression. She joined Arlo on the futon, grabbing a burrito as he pulled up Netflix on his MacBook Pro. He scrolled through a few movie and TV options before settling on some foreign disaster film. They chatted for a few minutes about their days while the film’s opening credits rolled; then Klein curled up against Arlo’s chest, and they settled into the film. His phone buzzed frequently with what she assumed were updates from the Weather app. Outside, the storm raged.
Sometime after the first gruesome death had occurred in the film, Arlo started to play with her hair. He ran his hands gently through her honey-brown curls, occasionally wrapping one around his finger. It always started like this. Arlo was shy with beginnings.
Klein let him tease her for a while, touching her hair. Then she put her mouth, very deliberately, near his.
“Are you going to kiss me, or not?”
One corner of his mouth tilted up in a grin. “I was waiting for you to ask.”
When their lips met, Klein was reminded of exactly why she spent so much time with Arlo, why she put up with the sometimes-problematic things he said. His kiss was golden. His arms went around her, warm and tight, and she crushed herself to him. Her heart pounded so loudly she wondered if he could feel it in her lips.
Kissing Arlo had taught her that she wasn’t broken, that the reason she had never enjoyed kissing anyone else before was because they weren’t doing it right. This kiss made her breathless, shaky, and hungry for more.
She let him push her backwards onto the futon. She reached for him, pulling his weight on top of her, and tangled her limbs with his. Their kisses grew hungrier, more desperate. Klein found the space below Arlo’s ear with her mouth and kissed it, biting softly. Her stomach flipped and spasmed with need. He groaned, low, right next to her ear.
“Go ahead,” Arlo whispered. “I know you want to.”
Heat rushed to her face.
“What do you mean?”
Arlo hesitated, and in that pause, his phone buzzed again. Klein reached for his pants pocket, brushing his waist—his eyes fluttered closed at her touch—and grabbed his phone. She meant to seize it playfully, maybe tease him by tossing it onto one of the pillows that their disentangled bodies had shoved onto the floor. But a quick glance at the screen, at the name on one of the notifications sandwiched between storm updates, caught her eye: Isla Bloch.
The message read: Any luck with Klein yet? Remember your end of the deal.
Klein froze. She was so immediately enraged that she only scarcely noticed the wind pick up into a roar outside, and the lights suddenly flicker out.
“What is it?” She felt Arlo shift back in confusion. “Shit, the power’s out.”
Wordlessly, she handed him the phone.
The phone cast a bluish glow on his face in the utter darkness. His expression shifted from concern to panic.
“Klein—it’s not—she didn’t mean—”
She shoved him away and scrambled off of the futon.
“What is she talking about, Arlo? Is this just some sick game to you? Some bet to get in my pants?”
“No!” His voice was desperate. “Of course not.”
Sensing him reaching for her, Klein backed further away. Her head had started to ache. Rage set her to trembling.
“Then what is it? What deal?”
She was horrified to hear her voice crack. Grow up, Klein, she told herself. You should’ve expected this.
Arlo let out a heavy sigh.
“Look, okay. Isla knew I was into you and she asked if I’d help her, help you. She said she could help me in return—she said she’d hack into my grades and change my C from summer OChem from to a B.”
Klein felt hot tears trickle down her cheek.
“What did she want you to help me with?”
Arlo was silent for a long moment.
“She said you needed to feed? And that maybe, if you let your guard down …”
“Oh my God.” She moved back until she hit the door, flinching, startled by the sudden contact. “Are you a feeder?”
Arlo said, quietly, “Sometimes.”
She felt like she might throw up. She yanked Arlo’s door open and ran out into the hallway, darting around the confused students who’d emerged at the power outage.
“Klein, please!” Arlo yelled after her.
She ran for the stairs before he could follow, racing down them faster than was safe in the minimal light from the EXIT sign. As she rounded the last flight of stairs to the ground floor, she paused on the landing. Chilly water rose to her ankle.
Sea-level rise forces the submerged exclusion zone wider each year. When it rains, the flood rises, creeping ever closer toward dry land.
The ailment spreads.
The final ten stairs were flooded. More water gushed in through the foolishly-propped EXIT door. (Hadn’t the RA warned them not to prop doors open like, a million times?) The street lights lining the sidewalk outside cast just enough light for Klein to see rain flying sideways past the door, trees bent nearly backwards, the streets swimming in excess water and debris.
She cursed, loudly, then jogged two flights back up. Touching the water had triggered her to change, and the onset made her slightly woozy, so she bent over the stairs, gripping the railing as if it were the only thing holding her to this world. She heard faint footsteps above her.
Arlo. “Fuck off,” she yelled.
She felt her gills come in, felt her hands and feet web. Briefly, she considered trying her luck out in the storm, finding the hurricane preferable to facing Arlo and her embarrassment, but she knew she was too weak a swimmer to survive if the flooding got any worse, fish body or not.
Arlo’s footsteps got closer. Klein’s composure broke completely, overwhelmed by the storm and the change and her warring emotions. By the time Arlo reached her, she had buried her head in her knees. Her shuddering, hiccuping sobs echoed throughout the stairwell like the wail of a monster in distress.
He sat down next to her, and she exploded, pushing and shoving him with all her might. He simply sat there silently and took it.
He waited until she’d exhausted herself before saying, “I’m sorry. I really am.”
Klein studied him through her tear-hazy gaze. God, she hated him. The mere sight of him was enough to make her blood boil. And yet—she couldn’t forget the way her body reacted to his. Returning to the city had made her need stronger.
She stood up abruptly. “Come here,” she told him.
Arlo obeyed. “I’m so, so sorry,” he said, again. “Please let me make it up to you.”
She moved back against the landing wall, her body language beckoning him closer. The emergency lighting in the stairwell wavered.
Klein reached for Arlo and kissed him, hard, pouring into him all of her anger. He responded in kind. He snatched her legs up around his waist, pressing her into the wall. Desire started in her stomach and clawed its way up her throat. Her kisses became furious. She put her fingers into his hair and tilted his head lovingly to the side, as if she intended to kiss him.
Instead, she opened her mouth, wide as it would go, and sank her teeth into his neck. Hot, tangy blood spilled into her mouth. Arlo flinched. She dug her nails into his back and drank deeper.
The first time she feeds, Klein is seventeen. Her childhood friend Lauren throws a prom after-party at her parents’ house. Klein gets sloppy drunk off of Lime-A-Ritas and ends up with Jimmy from Calculus’s whiskey-drenched tongue down her throat around three a.m. He’s a horrible kisser, but she finds it doesn’t matter. She blacks out, and comes to soaked in his blood. She doesn’t stop screaming for what feels like hours.
Lauren summons her mother’s on-call plastic surgeon around 5:30 a.m., bribes him with $3,500 to stitch up Jimmy’s neck and keep quiet about it. She helps Klein clean up the blood, clean herself off, and takes her out to breakfast at IHOP while all the other partygoers are still passed out drunk.
Lauren goes to Princeton for a semester, and ends up dropping out to marry a neurosurgeon twelve years older than her. She and Klein never speak again. Likewise, Klein never speaks of the incident, or of her bloodlust, after that night.
Klein opened her eyes to find Arlo slumped on the ground, eyes closed.
“There now. That’s what you wanted, isn’t it?” she said.
Her voice was wooden.
Her knees ached, likely from the fall. The front of her shirt was wet with blood. It pooled in the thin skin webbing her fingers together. She was dizzy with the sweet scent of it, drunk off of the taste.
She spit to clear the excess blood from her mouth, and a chunk of flesh came flying out as well. She looked down at Arlo’s neck to find it torn open, muscle poking through the jagged wound.
This was what she was afraid of.
The world lurched upside down, and she fell on her side with a splash. She noticed that the flooding had reached her landing. Hurricane water mingled with the copious amounts of Arlo’s blood she’d spilled. The water began to turn slightly pink.
Klein scrambled away on her butt, crawling backwards until she hit the wall. Her body began to tremble uncontrollably as she dug into her pockets for her phone. She sent the text message as if robotic, her body on autopilot.
Mere minutes later, the water had risen to cover her legs where she sat, shivering, on the floor of the landing. Footsteps made by wet shoes squelched down towards her from an upper floor.
Klein looked up to see Paisley and Isla leaning over the railing one flight above.
Paisley looked at Arlo the way one might briefly examine a dead pigeon in the gutter.
“I—I think he’s dead,” Klein said.
The other girls exchanged a look.
“I think she’ll fit in just fine, right, Paisley?” Isla said.
Paisley nodded her agreement, her lips turning up at the sides, almost bursting with glee.
“Looks like you might be one of us after all, Klein.”
Dim lighting fell on them in a flickering illumination, their smiles shining, white, and wide with pride.