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art by Alan Bao

Lures, Hooks and Tails

Author Bio: Adam Colston lives and works in Devon in the United Kingdom. His work has appeared in Writers of the Future, Redstone Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show.

"Where do you do it, young man?"
Peter glanced up from his book at the middle-aged woman--the only other occupant in the train compartment--and smiled.
"I'm sorry? Where do I do what?"
The train continued its rhythmic clanking and rocking and the woman smiled back. She inclined her head towards the pile of fishing gear piled on the empty seat beside him.
"Your fishing, I mean. Where do you fish? Rivers, lakes or sea?"
"Oh right." Peter nodded. "The sea. Well, the beach actually. I sea-fish from the beach."
"Ahh, so you do fish from the sea, then."
She turned away and gazed out of the window. Peter watched her for a few seconds more before turning back to his book. She was much younger than he'd first thought, and quite attractive.
"You seem a little too young to be a fisherman of the sea."
Peter glanced up again. She smiled at him--bright white teeth, full red lips; his heart skipped a beat. She really was very pretty.
"I'm not actually a sea fisherman, it's just a hobby. And I'm not that young." He bumped his age up a couple of years. "I'm seventeen," he lied.
She nodded. "A young fisherman, then. Would you do something for me, er...?"
"Peter." He volunteered.
She smiled again.
"Peter. I'm Vesea. Tell me, would you open the window, Peter. It's quite warm in here and I do so hate to touch a window."
Peter jumped up.
"Of course."
He went to the window and pulled down the top frame a few inches, letting in some noise and wind.
"Train windows can be dirty," he said wiping his grimy fingers on his trousers.
"It's not the dirt that's the issue for me, but the glass."
Peter turned to look at her. Her blonde hair seemed to flow over her shoulders.
"Why? What's wrong with the glass?"
Vesea arched a beautifully shaped eyebrow. "I see things in glass windows that others can't."
"You see things? Like what?"
"Would you like me to show you?"
Peter paused at this rather odd invitation. She was very beautiful, but ever so slightly weird, he realized. Weird was forgivable, if you were beautiful, he decided.
"You can show me? Of course." He paused. "How?"
"If you put your hands on the window, I'll touch the back of your hand, and you'll see what I see."
She showed him a delicate finger and waggled it in the air.
Peter nodded and imagined that perfectly formed finger touching his hand, perhaps even... Lurid fantasies evolved at lightning speed, but he shook his head to quell them.
"Okay... sure, why not?"
He stood and placed his palms on the window. Vesea lightly touched the back of his hand with a single pale finger.
Suddenly the glass softened and became a pliant, flexible, and undulating surface.
Peter gasped and his heart accelerated like an express train.
"What the hell...?"
Beyond what had been a normal window only seconds before, the passing landscape faded and darkened, replaced by dark blue gloom. From above, shards of light pierced its near uniform blueness and shoals of small, silver fish flashed past.
Peter turned to look at Vesea who stood next to him watching the scene.
"That's the sea."
Vesea turned to look at him. Her blue eyes sparkled and her breath played lightly across his cheek.
"Yes, pretty isn't it?"
"This is amazing," he whispered, conscious of how close she was standing next to him. "How's this possible?"
"You'd like to know?" She shut her eyes for a moment. "Then I'll tell you."
Peter turned back to the view. A large yellow fish swam toward the window, as though watching him from one its large eyes, then, with a flick of its tail, disappeared into the gloom.
"The sea bore me, Peter. I was a merlia--a child of the waves--and I swam the oceans of the world with my shoal, my brothers and my sisters.
One day, when swimming alone, a discarded net entangled me. I struggled for days, but eventually was washed up on a deserted beach."
Peter nodded. "Yes? And what then?"
"We lose our tails if we are out of the sea for too long. After a few hours on the beach, my tail disintegrated and was washed away by the tide. I was left with human legs. I can never return to the sea."
Peter turned and looked into her moist eyes. Her irises seemed like blue waves curling over and her breath smelled fresh--a light salt breeze across the sea.
"And now you're trapped on the land?"
"Yes. But I hear my brothers and sisters crying to me all the time and whenever I touch a window...."
Peter frowned. "Yes?"
"They come. Watch." She inclined her head to the window.
Peter turned back to the view of the sea. From the distant gloom, five pale worm-like creatures swum languidly towards the window. They grew in size as they neared; their upper bodies were human-like, yet so white they seemed silver. The lower body of each was long and sinuous, like a sea snake's.
"Do they miss you? Is that why they come?"
Peter watched the creatures approach. Their faces were human--beautiful--but paler and smooth. Their eyes were blue whirlpools and inside their half-open mouths white needle-like teeth glistened.
"What do they come for, then?"
The lead creature approached the other side of the window and smiled with a fey intelligence.
"To feed, Peter."
The merlia darted forward and, with a pale hand, scraped long claws across the membrane-like window.
Peter gasped and tried to snatch his hands away, but he couldn't--they were stuck to the surface. Vesea watched the merlia, a radiant look on her face.
A terrible suspicion surfaced in Peter's mind.
"Could we stop this, Vesea? I don't much like it." He heard the tremor in his voice. "I'd like to sit down again, but my hands are stuck."
Vesea turned to him, her eyes impassive blue stones. "You're a fisherman, aren't you? Your nets took me from the sea, from my shoal. So, now my shoal will take you." She laughed gently. "Not every hook is made of metal, fisherman."
She lifted her finger from the back of Peter's hand and his hands suddenly punctured the surface, plunging into the sea. The merlia lunged for his wrists and grabbed them with vice-like claws.
"No." He shook his head in disbelief. "Make it let me go."
His heart pumped like crazy as he struggled against the creature in vain. He dug his heels in and leaned backwards, but the creature was far stronger. The merlia's tail flicked from side to side like a motor and pulled him inexorably further and further through the window.
"Vesea, please. Help me, please...."
He was up to his armpits in the ice-cold sea.
"Do you let go of the fish you catch?" She smiled coldly.
The creature was going to rip him into pieces; Vesea was going to do nothing about it. He couldn't believe he was going to die--not now, not today. It was insane.
He was too young.
A tear spilled from his eye and ran down his cheek at the same moment the merlia hauled him a few inches closer; his face kissed the water's surface. Peter twisted away to draw a breath--perhaps his last.
On the other side, the merlia paused and leaned toward the spot were the tear had mingled with the seawater. It's nose crinkled as it seemed to sniff the water. It turned to Vesea, bared its teeth and screamed.
Vesea inhaled sharply and turned to Peter.
"How old did you say you were?"
"I... I'm fifteen."
"You told me you were seventeen."
"I... I lied."
Suddenly his hands were free and he crashed backwards to the floor in spray of water. His wrists burned from the merlia's claws. He glanced at the window. The ocean faded, the creature turned to smoke.
Sunlit trees, fields, and hedgerows zipped past, just as they should.
Peter lay there gasping, dazed and wet.
Vesea packed away her belongings in her bag, then folded her coat over her arm. Once again she was the middle-aged woman.
The train slowed.
Vesea turned and flashed him a quick, small smile. "My stop, I think."
"I... I don't understand...."
Vesea paused and looked down at him for a moment.
"Don't you, dear?" She stepped carefully past him as he lay on the floor. "I would have thought as a fisherman--fisher boy, I mean--that you would. You throw back the small ones, don't you? So they grow a bit more?"
With that, she disappeared down the corridor.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 13th, 2011

Author Comments

This evolved from an idea I had about someone who saw people in windows. Initially I imagined ghostly beings and saw them "swimming" towards the viewer. It was a short leap to for them to be sea creatures and the rest of the plot kinda fell together--just a matter of finding a few answers to the "whys" of the story.

- Adam Colston
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