(Posted for my short story archives.)
Halfway into summer vacation, my best friend Mabel and I spent the morning down at the beach. Both of us had carved out an hour and a half from our schedules to catch a little sun, splash in the water, and search for interesting seashells and sea glass. I watched the sunlight dance on the water, listened to the waves shush over the sand, and breathed in the salt and decay smell of the air.
Then, two dolphins appeared out in the deep water. They launched out of the waves, silver-gray bodies trailing crystal drops before they splashed into the ocean’s surface. Faintly, I heard my friend calling my name.
Come on, Ev!” Mabel huffed, exasperated.
I reluctantly turned from the spectacle of the dolphins. Mabel’s easy-going, but a stickler about being on time, and we had a lunch appointment. Without her, I perpetually ran a few minutes late. Since I wasn’t looking forward to the strained atmosphere these mother-daughter lunches always had, I was in no big rush.
“Ev!” Mabel repeated.
“What?” I glanced back at the sea to say goodbye to the dolphins. Just then, a human form broke the surface of the water near the shore, and swam towards me. “Coming! Just a sec!”
Mabel spotted the person in the water, glanced at her watch, frowned, but nodded. It might be one of our friends, after all, and Mabel never encouraged me to be rude. I don’t need encouragement, she says, because I have rudeness down to an art.
The returning tide lapped over my bare feet, and I wiggled my brown toes into the damp white sands. Just then, the waves washed a strand of seaweed over my left foot. Ugh! I took a step back from the slimy plant, but it entangled my toes. I hopped backwards, shaking my contaminated foot to free myself. When that failed, I leaned down and flicked the seaweed back into the water.
“It won’t hurt you,” a male voice said.
I straightened. While I’d been escaping the floating plant life, the swimmer had reached shore, and now stood a few feet away. He wasn’t anyone I knew, so I took the opportunity to study him.
White blond hair plastered against his head and dripped into hazel eyes. The swimmer’s golden tan was pretty standard for Santa Monica. His choice of attire, dark green swim shorts, displayed a swimmer’s build, lean and muscled. Nice, but judging from that grim expression, not friendly.
“Ev!” Mabel’s a tolerant soul, probably the only reason she hasn’t murdered me yet. But she was reaching her boiling point.
The smirking Adonis still waited for me to respond, and I thought about defending myself. I wasn’t one of those girly girls who perfected her tan, never got in the water, and ran shrieking from dead fish and aggressive seagulls. And he had shattered the calm I’d hoped to take with me, to cope with the pressures of Mother’s expectations. But my stress wasn’t really his fault, so I turned on my heel and raced back to Mabel.
“Yeah, run! That’s what they all do!” He yelled, condescension dripping from his voice.
Mother says a lady rises above pettiness, and really, I try to let jerky comments go. But I can’t help but be angry. Sometimes, I don’t want to swallow it down to burn in the pit of my stomach.
I skidded to a halt, throwing up little flurries of sand. Gritting my teeth, I pivoted to face him.
He hadn’t moved. Well, I’ve been judged enough today, buster. If you want to pick a fight, you chose the wrong girl.
I marched towards him, feeling the sand shift under my toes.
Mabel groaned. I’d better act quickly, before she intervened.
“I wasn’t running from you. Though with that winning personality, I wouldn’t be surprised if people do run from you.”
Well, that wiped the smirk right off his face. In fact, he seemed surprised. Why? Did he think I wouldn’t stand up for myself? Jerk.
“I’ve got someplace to be, so if you’re done…” My glare said he’d better be finished, because I was so done with him.
Mabel trotted across the sand towards us. “Evelyn! Quit picking fights!”
“He started it.” After all, he’d come up to me, smirking about my perfectly understandable dislike of having dripping, slimy, and sometimes sharp-edged seaweed wrapped around my foot. I’d gotten the stuff tangled around an ankle while out wading and ended up with thin scratches and a lecture about keeping my legs in skirt worthy-shape from my mother only two weeks ago. I glanced out at the sea one more time, hoping to catch a glimpse of those two dolphins before we left. One was gone, and the other floated on the waves, body pointed towards us. “Great, you scared off the other dolphin.”
He huffed out an almost-laugh, sharp-edged, his eyes flat and not amused. “Sure. Pretend you don’t know I’m the other dolphin.”
Well, I really put my foot in it this time. Mabel’s right, I should think before I speak. I hadn’t noticed him shifting, so of course I hadn’t realized he was Changeable. I didn’t want to apologize, though. Maybe he wasn’t judging me the way I’d originally thought, but… he was still ill-mannered.
On the other hand, having made this situation worse, it was probably my turn to make it better.
Mabel, sensitive soul that she is, jumped into the loaded silence first. “Evelyn didn’t mean anything. She’s-”
“Sure she didn’t.” He dismissed Mabel with a shrug.
Mabel’s lavender eyes widened, and her lip trembled as she fought back tears. People acted nice to Mabel, since she treated everyone with kindness. Her charm bounced right off this guy’s armor-plated skull, though. Well, Mabel wouldn’t fight back, but I definitely could defend her.
“Hey, no need to be rude. She’s trying to apologize.” I drew myself straight, shoulders back, chin up, and breathed in deeply for patience. How could I apologize if he wouldn’t listen?
The morning started well, with Cynthia and I on the beach before dawn burned the gray from the sky. My sister and I love the ocean. That’s why we lived on the beach, and spent every moment we could out on the water. Sometimes I couldn’t get away, and felt like I might burst a vein from frustration. There’s so much weighing me down. But it felt great in the waves, weightless and free. Too bad we couldn’t stay there forever.
But this girl, Evelyn, stood on our beach like she belonged there more than we did. Homo sapiens commutabilis. That’s what the scientists call us. Everyone else calls us freaks. I’m sub-class delphinus. Minus the Latin, that means I can be a dolphin.
Everything about Evelyn said wealth and privilege. Smooth brown skin, and black hair floating around her face in a feathery cut that drew attention to her light brown eyes. Her expensive shorts and shirt couldn’t handle much dirt or activity. Like the girls that strolled through luxury shops, their rhinestone sandals never touching sand. Spoiled princesses that’d tell their boyfriends to shove me around if I even looked at them funny.
And Evelyn called me rude, which didn’t sound like an apology to me. Time to get away from the crazy girl. As the tide washed over my feet, a hand gripped my upper arm. Astonished, I turned back.
“I’m sorry,” Evelyn dropped her hand from my arm, but kept her amber eyes fixed on mine. “I wasn’t paying attention, and acted without consideration. But Mabel deserves an apology.”
Mabel stared at the sand, freckle-spotted shoulders slumped, her sun-bright red hair covering most of her face. I’d feel sorry for her, except for her clothes. Expensive stuff that probably cost as much as half my wardrobe. No, she wasn’t anything like me, either.
“I don’t owe you anything,” I stepped back, but Evelyn followed, a bulldog-stubborn set to her jaw. “It’s going to get a bit wet.”
“I can swim.”
“I swim better.”
She shrugged. “I’m sure there’s things I do better than you. Obviously, I have better social skills.” She folded her arms and watched me. Her chin jutted up, nose in the air like the first time I saw her. But her arms wrapped around her ribs, hugging herself, and she seemed smaller than a minute ago.
“I didn’t mean to make her cry.”
“I’m not Mabel. I don’t need your apology.”
Behind her, Mabel squeaked like a kicked puppy. She twisted her intertwined fingers, gaze ping-ponging between me and her friend.
Evelyn’s bright gold-brown eyes met mine, and we shared a moment of guilty amusement. She shook her head. “Anyway, what’s your name?”
Now Mabel stared at me, her face hopeful, hands still dancing.
“I’m Evelyn. That’s Mabel.”
“Right.” I’d already heard their names. Where was she going with this?
“ So…” She trailed off, studying the water washing over her feet before finally meeting my eyes. “I was watching some dolphins and talking to my friend when a guy came out of the water and called me a wuss and a coward.”
“I did not!”
What was she talking about?
I saw Evelyn standing on the shore, faced out to sea, so she had to have seen me change! Unless she turned away at the right moment. The change from dolphin is quick. And if she had missed it… A sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach warned that if I’d been wrong, I acted like a jerk.
I definitely hadn’t called Evelyn a coward. But I had interrupted Mabel, who’d gone back to huddling, head down.
“Hey.” I waited until Mabel lifted her head. “Sorry.”
Mabel flashed the most sincerely happy smile I’ve ever seen. “It’s okay.” Her lavender eyes sparkled like there’d never been tears in them.
“Just because someone’s different doesn’t make them wrong,” Evelyn said.
I stared at her.
She’d dropped her arms to her sides, and braced her feet against the shallow waves. One corner of her mouth quirked up, and the tension pulling her eyebrows together vanished. She didn’t act at all like a scared norm.
“Cindy! Come join us!”
Cindy changed, and came out of the water. She stopped beside me, swimsuit and hair dripping onto the sand.
“Siblings?” Evelyn’s gaze flicked from Cindy to me.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Good for you,” she half-smiled again.
“Some people don’t have someone to be that close to,” Evelyn shrugged. “Nice meeting you, but we’ve got to go.”
“We’re almost a half an hour late, Ev,” Mabel said.
Evelyn sighed. “Oh, that’s great. Mother’s going to kill me.” She waved at me and Cindy, “See you around, Anthony.”
She took off across the sand, Mabel racing after. They stopped at a pile of towels on a rock, brushing off sand and putting on shoes, and disappeared over the hill.
“That was weird.”
“Norms,” Cindy waded into the waves, heading deep enough to change.
“Yeah.” I followed. But these two acted differently from most norms who knew what we were. I couldn’t dismiss them like she did.
I’d lost the mellow feeling from our morning swim, though. Awkward in my other skin, like I usually felt on land, I left the water soon.
I tried to put the weird norm girl’s flashing pale brown eyes out of my mind, but the argument we’d had kept intruding as I got ready for my job waiting tables at Melisende.
Not what I needed right now.
Showered and dressed in the uniform of black shoes, black slacks, burgundy long-sleeved shirt, and tie, I hopped on my bike. At the back of the restaurant, I chained my bike next to the others, where people sat for smoke breaks.
Inside, one of the managers scolded a new server for wearing a tie that clashed with her shirt. Past them, the lunch rush steadily grew.
I clocked in at one on the dot, and headed out to check on the tables handed off from another server. One table, three men and two women sitting at a table for four, caught my eye. They showed off Surf-Fins shirts, chatting about a performance they’d seen by those mutie sell-outs.
I straightened my tie, plastered on a smile, and went to refill their drinks.
You don’t have to like what other people do, Cindy says, but when your dislike sticks to you, you only hurt yourself. Just let it slid off you like water.
Breathless from our jog from the beach, Mabel and I skidded into the front door for the monthly Mothers and Daughters Together luncheon. It ‘promoted family togetherness,’ which Mabel and her mom manage pretty well. They don’t need fancy china, doilies, tea, and cookies to be a real family, though. They just are.
My mother and I, not so much. She hovers over me at home, worried about how I’m dealing with life’s challenges, relating to people, and planning my future. She means well. I love her, but sometimes… The gap between the two of us stretches too far.
But Mabel and I go to the luncheons, anyway. The colorful cookies aren’t bad, and the tiny sandwiches are tasty.
“Girls!” Mother’s voice rose in pitch and volume. “The luncheon starts in ten minutes! You promised to help, but Nicolette and I had to do everything.”
“Sorry, Mother,” I said.
“Sorry, Mom,” Mabel said.
“It’s okay, girls,” Mabel’s mom beamed at us, her eyes the same shade of purple-blue, but framed with crinkling smile lines. “Honey, please double-check the silverware. Ev, there’s extra chairs in the back, could you put them against the wall?”
We got to it, and soon enough the guests trickled in. You could bring any daughters twelve or older to the luncheons. A few women, I was pretty sure, brought the daughter they liked best. If I had a sister, I imagine Mother would bring that other, more perfect girl.
Though who knows, my sister could be like me. Baffling, not a polite Indian-American girl. Mother’s parents distanced themselves when she married a black man, and told her that my behavior proved them right—she should have married an Indian boy.
“Evelyn, don’t slump,” Mother hissed at me, and I straightened. She poured us tea while Mabel and her mom, sitting across from us, snuck a napkin-wrapped stack of cookies into Nicki’s purse. Sue and her mom were on my left. Unfortunate.
Some of the other girls acted decent. Some were stiff-backed mommy-clones, hair sprayed into place. Sue, one of those clones, displayed a sugary smile that hid the razor edge of a backhanded compliment.
“Hey, Sue, how’s your week been?” I passed her a plate of cookies.
“Oh, no, I can’t eat those,” she waved away the plate, her rhinestone-decorated manicure catching the light.
“Okay,” I shrugged, passing the plate to my other side. “Mabel and I eat and exercise a bunch. It’s the hummingbird diet. Could you please pass me those sandwiches?”
It was going to be a long luncheon.