“Do I get three more questions today?” Jack asked the next day, when he found Eric settled along the shoreline next to the pier, scrubbing at a soft-looking t-shirt with a bar of soap.
“Don’t you have birds to takes pictures of?”
“I’ve been out on the island since seven,” Jack said. He hadn’t been able to sleep the night before, and chalked it up to being too eager to get back out to the island. Better to take advantage of being awake and be productive, he had thought. “I could use a break.”
Eric hummed, sticking his tongue out slightly while he concentrated on getting out some invisible spot of dirt.
“Where’d you get the shirt?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” Eric said, lifting it up to examine it in the mid-morning sunlight. He didn’t elaborate until he looked up a few moments later and saw Jack staring at him blankly. “Oh, sweetpea-- I’m just teasin’. I brought it with me when I came here.”
“Where do you keep it? In the water?”
“No! It’d get ruined!” Eric said, clapping his hand over his mouth in mock despair. “I have a suitcase I keep on the island where I have some things that I like to keep dry.”
“Does that mean you’re not always in the water?”
Eric’s hands froze, and the soap slipped out and skidded a few feet away into the grainy sand and pebbles of the shore, landing near the toes of Jack’s boots.
Jack stooped down to pick it up. “Bad question?”
Eric nodded. “Can we pretend you didn’t ask?”
“Didn’t ask what?” Jack said.
“What?” Eric looked at him for a second, brows raised, until he realized. “Oh! You’re funny. Okay, you have one more question.”
“Great,” Jack said, squatting and handing the soap back over. “Can you help me with a few shots I’m trying to get? I’m not sure I know the terrain yet.”
Eric accepted the soap and balanced it on his palm for a moment, then gave the tiniest of shudders and returned to scrubbing at his shirt. “I’ll help you with your fancy photography project if you help me clean up a little bit.”
Jack reached out to take the shirt from Eric’s hand and potentially save it from his overly vigorous scrubbing. “Cleaning your clothes? I bet we could find a laundromat, you know.”
“You’re a menace,” Eric said. “Cleaning the island, I mean. I do have things that I do around here, you know. Your kind tends to make a mess of my home.”
There’s no bite behind his words, but Jack apologizes anyway. “I’m sorry. I can help. It’s only right that I clean up a little bit, since I’m already invading your territory. And I can help with laundry, too.”
“I don’t mind,” Eric said, quietly, holding his hands back out for his shirt.
Jack handed it back, letting his hands brush against Eric’s as he did so. They were cold from the early-autumn water. “It’s a deal, then.”
Eric flicked a few droplets at him. “Deal, Mr. Zimmermann.”
Jack brought Eric a heavily creamed and sugared coffee the next day, and in return was gifted a warm pink seashell that Eric must have carefully cleaned overnight before placing on the pier. Eric himself was sleepy and soft that morning, eyes heavy as he leaned against the old, weathered wood and watched Jack carefully prepare his camera, occasionally stifling yawns between gulps of coffee. Neither of them said anything for nearly half an hour, which seemed unusual for Eric, who had already proven he could talk for about an hour straight about his favorite pop music icons without much input from Jack.
Jack appreciated that. It was easy to talk to Eric-- maybe because Eric didn’t know anything about his past, or because there was no one else around, or maybe just because something fit and it felt right.
“Okay, I’ve got one,” Jack said, when he was done flipping through his notebook with his plans for the day’s shoot. “A question, I mean."
Eric held up a hand to shush Jack, took one last sip from the last dregs of his coffee, then put his hand down again. “Go on.”
“Do you have some kind of government for-- you know?”
“For merpeople?” Eric made an audible psht sound, button nose scrunching up. “Why would we? There’s not many of us at all anymore.
Jack hummed, and then didn’t ask a second or third question, because he wasn’t sure if he wanted to know what Eric meant by that, exactly.
And he certainly didn’t want to push him. Jack had already noticed the longing in Eric’s voice when he spoke vaguely and broadly about the others, and he was pretty sure he understood the achy, lonely feeling of having drifted away from your people and into open ocean.
Metaphorically, of course. Jack couldn’t swim.
Instead of talking they both spent the rest of the day getting dirty and scraped up from spending too much time sprawled out on the rocky pebbles where water met shore next to the pier. Jack spread out on his stomach so he could be low enough to get good shots of the birds foraging in the inches-deep water along the shoreline, and Eric floated a few feet out in the water, eyes closed and fingers spread so he could feel the tiniest changes in the rhythm of the waves and warn Jack whenever a big one was coming so he could pull back and protect his camera from getting wet.
They called it a day after one of the waves got a little too close for comfort, licking up Jack’s arms and just barely splattering along the lens. He had yelped, and then Eric had laughed, and when he saw the way the warm sun lit Eric up from the back like a full-body halo, Jack thought:
Jack wasn’t sure how to proceed, so he did nothing, and instead continued to pester Eric about the laundromat that he passed by every day on his drive from his bed and breakfast to the parking lot on the mainland. Eric seemed very grateful for the coffees and pastries he brought from the land, after all, so Jack figured he had no qualms about the creature comforts of modern life.
After a week, Eric finally took Jack up on laundromat offer, which Jack discovered when at the end of a long day of shooting along the shores of the creek that ran haphazardly in sharp curves throughout the island. Eric had stayed with him for part of the day, splashing and singing and teasing him about his increasingly pink sunburn, and then left right as Jack was packing up.
It was abrupt, but not entirely unusual. Eric was a hundred times more attuned to the island than Jack was-- he could hear and feel the water in a way that baffled Jack, and would occasionally disappear to retrieve a piece of trash that had floated in from the ocean, or to investigate some sort of fish behavior that Jack didn’t understand.
Eric returned a few minutes later with something large and translucent in his hands. It wasn’t until he lifted it fully out of the water and deposited it next to Jack’s folded tripod that he saw that it was a waterproof plastic bag full of clothes.
“Warm water, and just let them air dry, please,” Eric said, giving the bag a pat. “I’m sure they’ll be a little tight as is, so I don’t want to risk them shrinking at all.”
“I promise I’ll take good care of them. Should I put them in the bag when they’re done? They might wrinkle,” Jack said. He’d observed the way that Eric tended to frequently check his hair in his reflection in the water, so he had a feeling he might be the type to be neat and tidy about his clothes, too-- if he ever actually wore them.
Eric bit his lip, but nodded.
Jack took the bag, shook off some more water again, and tucked it under his arm as he grabbed his camera bag and his tripod. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then. Any breakfast requests?”
“Oh!” Eric said, brightening up. “I just remembered that apples are in season. Could you get me a few?”
“Alright,” Jack said. “Clean clothes and some apples. No problem.”
“See you, sweetheart!” Eric said, and just a splash and a blink of an eye later, he was gone, no doubt already several yards away down the creek as he headed back to wherever it was he slept, or maybe out into the open ocean to catch fish dinner, which was something he had not been particularly forthcoming about describing to Jack.
It was early in the evening. The sun was low, but not gone completely, so Jack took his time heading back to the mainland. He had plenty of time to stop by the deli in town to get a sandwich for dinner, which he ate in his car because he wasn’t sure if it was rude or not for him to try to hang out with the locals. After he had finished that and neatly folded up the wax paper and napkins he’d used, he drove a few streets over to the laundromat.
It was empty when he arrived, although two of the machines were rumbling softly, and one of the dryers was shaking violently, but Jack knew that was normal from when he’d visited last week to do his laundry. He headed to the same machine he’d used before-- better safe than sorry, since he wasn’t sure he trusted any of the other decrepit old machines to work-- and set the bag on top of it. When he opened it, he took a deep breath and closed his eyes. The clothes smelled like ocean salt, which was exactly how Eric smelled when he got close enough to splash Jack.
Was it weird that he’d noticed? Maybe. And it was probably weird that he had also absentmindedly held a shirt up to his nose to take a deep whiff, so he sheepishly dropped it and stuffed it into the machine.
He wished he’d saved his sandwich, since it would have given him something to do. He didn’t have a book in his car, either, so he settled on a bench across the aisle from his machine and scrolled through his Instagram feed on his phone. He only followed his parents, his weird neighbor who was trying to convince Jack that his name was “Shitty,” and a hundred or so other nature photographers, so it was a fairly relaxing feed.
Very relaxing. Relaxing enough that he startled slightly when the machine buzzed to indicate the cycle was complete. He stood up and grunted when his back twinged-- an old sore spot from his days in juniors-- and lumbered over to remove the clothes and put them back into the bag. He’d spread them out to dry better in his room at the B&B, but the bag would have to work for the time being, just to transport them without soaking the backseat of his rental car.
Thankfully, there wasn’t much to stuff into the bag. Just a pair of briefs he was deliberately not taking a closer look at because that would be Weird, Zimmermann, a soft gray polo, a pair of jeans, and two t-shirts.
One was the faded blue one that Eric had been cleaning in the water the second day Jack had spoken to him. The other was maroon, and the front was emblazoned with the words Morgan County High School Class of 2013.
Eric didn’t seem that much younger than Jack. Realistically, that could have been the year he’d graduated high school. But what did that mean? Jack supposed that Eric could have gotten the shirt secondhand, but he had a feeling deep in his gut that it wasn’t true. How had he gotten a hold of so many clothes, anyway? How had he developed a flavored coffee addiction if he’d lived in the ocean his whole life?
What had happened, that made him need to leave wherever he’d been before?
Jack shoved the shirt into the bag. He didn’t want to pry, but he also wanted to know what was in the realm of possibility. He wanted to know Eric’s situation. He wanted to know his future.
“Eric!” Jack yelled from the end of the pier, camera bag slung over his shoulder, a coffee cup in one hand, and the laundry bag in another. “Eric!”
Silence, and the calmness of the early morning water. The sun hadn’t been up for long and it was covered with a layer of low clouds, so the air was still chilly enough that Jack’s breath came out in small, white puffs. He took another cautious step to the very edge of the pier, then backed up when it creaked loudly.
He paused halfway down the pier where the wood was a little less damaged, then waited, watching the horizon. It looked like rain later, maybe, and Jack scowled. He’d recently found a taste for sunlight.
“What’s got you in a fuss?” Eric asked, jerking him out of his concentration. He was swimming alongside the length of the pier toward the shore, which forced Jack to walk back to the shore. “You’re earlier than usual. Coffee?”
Jack stooped down and handed it over, then decided to just sit on the edge of the pier, boots dangling just a few inches above the water. As Eric swung one hand around one of the poles of the pier to keep himself from drifting, Jack opened the bag and took out the shirt on top.
“Did you go here?” Jack asked, unfurling it and holding it out for Eric to see. “I know you didn’t want to talk about-- about not being in the water. But. I want to know. Please?”
Eric looked at Jack for a few moment, brows drawn, eyes wider than usual. They made him look younger, that way. “It’s just not a very nice story.”
“Mine’s not very nice, either,” Jack said, sticking his foot out toward Eric, who latched onto it and pulled himself up so he was pressed against Jack’s thigh, making Jack’s pants a little damp in the process.
He began to play with the zipper of Jack’s windbreaker. “I grew up out here. Well. Down the coast a little bit, but out on the sea. And then when I was ten my parents and I moved inland.”
Eric poked at Jack’s thigh. “I don’t know. A lot of reasons.”
“I want to know.”
Eric’s eyes darkened, pupils widening faster than seemed natural. “Because there wasn’t enough to eat , Jack, and the water was dirty, and they wanted me to have a high school diploma in case I ever wanted to get a job on land. And I don’t know what else. I was a kid when we moved. Everyone was just stressed all the time and I’d never been on land before and it was the worst.”
“Because that wasn’t your world.”
Eric nodded. “I was awful at walking, and I didn’t know how to talk to all the other kids, and I thought the food was weird at first. But I got used to things, eventually. Sometimes it was good and sometimes it sucked. I loved it, though.”
“But it didn’t love you back?” Jack asked, with the tiniest of smirks, thinking of hockey.
“So you can-- change? You can choose to, if you want?”
“It’s a choice, but not just any time at all that we want. It’s more of a choice we make when we need.”
“And you chose to came back,” Jack said.
Eric hummed, and took Jack’s hand in his own and plopped it down on the crown of his own head, then looked up at Jack expectantly. Jack began to play with Eric’s hair, because he had to, of course. It was drying quickly and wavy with sea salt. “I had to,” he said quietly after a minute or so, eyes closed. “They hurt me, and my parents wanted me to toughen up and keep trying, and it just wasn’t worth it. We had this awful fight and then I came here, and this was good. This was safe.”
Jack watched him, completely vulnerable under his hand, and wondered what this was. “I guess I wouldn’t trust people after that,” he said, reaching to wipe a tear off of Eric’s cheek. He wasn’t sure when he’d started crying. “I wouldn’t trust some clumsy photographer who doesn’t know how to swim.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t,” Eric said. “But I suppose I’ve always had a weak spot for sweet boys.”
Jack smiled at him. The distance was suddenly very unbearable, and he offered Eric a hand. Eric took it and reeled back a tiny bit before he heaved himself up out of the water and onto the pier. Jack scooted backward so that Eric would have room to lean into his lap and rest his head on Jack’s chest, eyes closed, just a few water droplets remaining on his eyelashes. He was so beautiful, Jack thought, that he looked like a painting.
Eric rested there for a moment, then wiped at his eyes and gave a little half-chuckle, half-sob. “Jack, honey?”
“Was it really the shirt that gave it away?” he asked, rubbing his thumb along a few specks of sand that had found their way to Jack’s collarbone somehow.
“Yes? It had the school name on it.”
Again, Eric giggled, and pressed his sun-warmed face against Jack’s chest. “Sweetheart, there were pants in my laundry.”
Jack felt his own chest rumble with a warm laugh, and when Eric opened his eyes, he found that he had somehow leaned in without meaning to, and their faces were only inches apart. Eric’s eyes were aimed low, trained on Jack’s lips, and for a moment they were frozen.
Then they both pulled away, just a few inches, but it felt like miles.
Jack was afraid, so he did what he was good at-- he hid behind his camera, reaching to scoop it out of his bag and pop off the lens cap and aim it at Eric, framing it so he was only visible from the waist up. Eric gave a quiet, pleased shriek and held up his hands as he broke out into a laugh. “Oh, you’re the worst. I haven’t even done my hair!”
The shutter sounded, and Jack pulled back and looked at the photo. It was perfect because Eric was perfect, and he smiled down at it as he fit the cap back on the lens, then returned the camera to the case and put his hands back in Eric’s hair.
“Aren’t you afraid I’ll tell somebody?” Jack said. The moment had vanished.
“Oh, bless your heart,” Eric said. His eyes were already closed-- an involuntary reaction when Jack had his hands in his hair, it seemed. “Silly man. You’re lucky you’re pretty.”
“Do you really think anyone would believe you?” he said, almost haughty, as he opened his eyes again and raised his brows at Jack.
It was then that Jack understood that this would come to an end, and soon. His last day on the island was tomorrow, after all, and how could he ask Eric to go back to a world that had mistreated him, when he had a refuge here? Jack would leave, and he would have nothing to remember it by, other than a few seashells and a full portfolio of bird photos.
Well. One photo of Eric.
Maybe that was all Jack deserved. All that he could afford to keep of Eric, without sacrificing his freedom.
A lonely freedom-- but still freedom. Freedom not too different from an empty apartment in Providence, and no one there to greet Jack upon his return, and no pressure to do anything but take photos and go on runs on repeat, ad infinitum.
Jack felt his face fall, but he knew that was how things had to be. He gave Eric’s head a final pat. “Alright, bud,” he said. “I have to get to shooting. I need to wrap things up.”
“Of course,” Eric said, slipping back into the water immediately. Jack felt himself reaching out as he left, already missing the warm weight of him. He disappeared for a moment under the surface, then bobbed back up, hair slicked back and eyes darkened, already covered with the filmy second eyelid that helped him see underwater. “I can’t stay,” he said, voice weirdly hoarse.
“What? It’s my last day,” Jack said.
“I know. It was nice getting to know you, sweetheart, but I really need to go. I hope the magazine likes your photos. They’re beautiful.”
And then he was gone, and Jack was alone with the cold air and the gray sky.
“Thank you,” Jack said, to the ocean, wishing Eric didn’t have to go where Jack could not follow. “I’ll miss you too.”
The moment Jack stepped outside of his B&B with his suitcase and camera bag the next morning, he knew it would be an awful day. He’d barely slept, so he was groggy in a way that no amount of coffee could help, and the high humidity outside was giving him the worst kind of headache. It was also chillier than it had been for the past two weeks-- a sign of the weather starting to turn colder. He shivered in his windbreaker and cranked the heat of his rental car higher than he normally would.
He bumped the radio volume up to drown out the sound of the heat running until a familiar female singer’s voice came on over the radio, and then he’d twisted the volume knob with one shaking hand until he was sitting in silence, and he drove all the way up to Savannah like that.
When he arrived he went through the process of returning the rental in a daze of sorts, only feeling bad for a moment when he realized that he hadn’t said a word to the cheery rental station attendant who’d helped him. Was he always such an asshole?
Of course, he forgot about his own stewing frustration for a few moments when he entered the airport proper and found himself caught up in the buzz of way too many people for how early in the morning it was. Over the course of five minutes he was jostled no less than seven times, and each point of contact made his spine hunch over a bit more. By the time he found the security line he could feel his shoulders shaking almost violently.
The two coffees he’d picked up on his way to the airport were maybe, possibly, a bad idea.
The line inched forward and Jack. Didn’t. Move.
He felt paralyzed. The air inside the building was stuffy and still and the whole airport was hot enough that he was sweating hard enough that he’d have spots under his arms soon. He looked down at his camera bag (he carried it as his on-flight personal item because he didn’t trust that it wouldn’t get jostled down below in the cargo) and willed himself to pick it up and move forward.
There was a weird bulge in the side pocket that he usually kept empty.
Instead of picking up the bag and stepping forward, Jack reached into the pocket. Inside was a seashell, pale pink and polished smooth by the water and Eric’s gentle, caring hands.
From behind him, someone loudly and violently cleared their throat.He turned around in the security line to find a very old woman with approximately a dozen suitcases and bags with her, and worst of all, a very tiny dog in a bow tucked into her purse.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” he said. He nodded politely to the dog as he slung his camera bag over his shoulder as he squeezed by and ducked under the line divider before sprinting to the door.
Outside, the air was almost humming with electricity and uneven gusts of wind. The smaller breezes were just mildly chilly; the larger ones would probably blow the small dog away. He needed to get to the shore before the storm hit and Eric sought cover elsewhere.
“Taxi,” he said, to no one but the crackling, restless air and himself. It seemed like the outside of the airport had cleared out, though, with everyone headed inside to take refuge from the imminent storm. “Taxi,” he repeated, as if this would resolve the issue.
“Dude,” a young woman, likely college-aged, said. “Are you living in the 80s? It’s 2019. Get an Uber.”
Right. Jack nodded at her in thanks, then took out his phone and ordered one; when a man in the silver Corolla with the correct license plate number pulled up a few minutes later, he shook his head at Jack and complained that the island was too far out of his range.
“You really sure you want to head out to the coast? There’s a bad storm brewin’,” the man said, as if Jack did not have eyes or the ability to make critical thinking skills involving weather.
Jack told him what the tip would be, and the man clammed up and was even so kind as to throw Jack’s bag in the trunk for him and offer him a stick of gum. Jack took it, just to have something to do with his mouth, because otherwise he was pretty sure he would very annoyingly spend the entire drive asking the man to go faster.
The drive, normally an hour, took half that. It helped that there were hardly any other cars on the road, but Jack tipped the driver twice what he’d originally said anyway, because the man didn’t ask too many questions and Jack appreciated that. He also appreciated that the sky had held back the storm up until he stepped out of the car and retrieved his camera bag.
He closed the trunk and the driver zipped off. A moment later, the whole world broke open, and Jack found himself soaked down to the skin in the pouring rain. Thank goodness his bag was waterproof. He didn’t have his raincoat or anything else to protect him from the sheets of rain that were now lashing down violently against him, so he leaned into it, gritted his teeth, and pressed onward from the road into the wildlife area, and then over the rickety bridge and onto the island.
Eric spent a lot of his time in the creek that ran through the entire island, so Jack found its nearest tributary and followed it to the main water, which was already starting to bubble angrily with the excess water. It did not look like it would be very forgiving if he slipped and fell in, so he stayed a foot or two away and called out, “Eric!”
Eric didn’t answer. Jack inched closer to the bank of the creek and peered down, but the water was cloudy with movement and mud, and the sky was dark enough from the heavy, roiling thunderclouds that it didn’t give him much light to start with. But there were more nooks and crannies where Eric could be hiding out, so Jack spent the next thirty minutes walking the length of the creek, calling out until his voice grew hoarse and shaky from the cold and he was shivering more and more with every step.
Then he came to the end of the creek, which was the open ocean, looking less like the calm water he was used to and more like a death sentence, foaming and breaking and ravinously lapping at the shoreline.
Eric was out there, maybe. This was Jack’s last chance.
He dropped his camera bag by the shore and charged outward onto the pier, which immediately proved itself far too slippery to run on. The old wood was treacherously slick with the rain, so Jack slowed his pace to a moderate clip and strode out to the edge, where he would have the best view of the water, and where he would be most visible to anyone below the surface.
He wasn’t the most eloquent, but he needed to tell Eric how he felt now. He cleared his throat and took his place at the very end of the dock. “Eric,” he called out, doing his best to project, although between the wind and the pounding of the rain it felt like his voice was being sucked away into nothing. “Eric, I came to tell you that--”
And then the pier, creaking under his weight and the downpour, gave out.
Maybe, on a better day when Jack was prepared and not wearing heavy boots, and when the water was calm, instinct would have kicked in and he would have figured out how to stay afloat. But it didn’t. Instead, Jack sank. For a moment or two he foolishly thrashed around as if that would do something to change his fate, but the cold seeped into his bones fast enough, and he’d caught a chestful of water when he’d fallen, and he was starting to feel dizzy from lack of oxygen.
So he closed his eyes, and for his last few moments, tried to enjoy Eric’s world.