Cate doodled leaves in her notebook as Mr. Bell paced at the front of the classroom, mumbling something about nonrenewable resources. She had heard it all before, but what control did she have over whether the town’s power came from coal or wind? The leaves she doodled, though, she controlled completely. They joined together in a vine that climbed up the page, twisting and branching and curling around the—admittedly, very few—notes she had taken.
A hand touched Cate’s back, tugging at fabric. Then with a sting, her bra strap snapped loudly back into place. Heads turned and laughter rippled through the classroom as Cate whirled in her seat to glare at Alex, who sat behind her. “Leave me alone,” she hissed.
“Cate, no talking,” Mr. Bell admonished. He pressed his lips together. “That’s the third time I’ve had to tell you this week.”
“Did I ask for your input?” Mr. Bell narrowed his eyes. “For talking out of turn twice now, I’m giving you detention. Understood?”
“Want to add tomorrow as well?”
“No, sir.” Cate crossed her arms and stared out the window, fuming while Alex huffed smugly behind her. She held back the hot feeling that prickled at her eyes, instead focusing on the trees in the woods beyond the school ground, bathed invitingly in golden sunlight.
A figure walked out of the trees, blurry and obscure through the glass. Cate squinted. It was a girl, perhaps a few years older than Cate herself. She looked filthy as if she’d been rolling in mud—her clothes indistinct, her feet bare. Her hair was lank and hung in long strands around her face, but her smile was visible even through the smudged glass. She raised a hand and crooked a finger in a beckoning gesture. Cate leaned toward the window, straining to see what the girl was doing.
Without warning, Cate found herself outside, warm sun on her shoulders. She gasped and stumbled slightly, trying to gain her bearings. The girl, now just in front of her, smiled even wider and jerked her chin toward the tree line, then turned and darted away into the woods.
“Wait!” Cate took a step, then turned back. Behind her, the school sat, uncaring that she had been whisked outside, not even noticing her absence. How had that even happened? She looked again at the woods. There was no sign now of the girl. But she couldn’t have gotten far, could she?
Cate tiptoed into the trees, sighing as the cool shadows slid over her skin. The trees gave her space, letting her pick her way toward a destination she felt certain about even if she had no idea where she was going.
Presently, she found herself in a clearing. In the middle of the clearing was a glittering pool, its waters burnished gold, sparkles of sunlight dancing off its surface. Next to the pool sat the girl, arms around her knees, ankles crossed. She looked up at Cate. “I’d hoped you would come.”
Cate hesitated at the edge of the clearing. Up close, the girl was even more startling. Her lank hair was a yellow so vibrant it was nearly green. Her clothes were vague and fuzzy, as though viewed through an out-of-focus lens. Her legs were smeared with grime, and where her toes ended, curved black talons sprouted. She smiled, revealing rows of pointed teeth. Cate shivered, but realized the sensation came from excitement rather than fear. She stepped into the clearing.
“Wha—” Cate stopped herself, realizing how rude it would be to ask the question that almost slipped from her tongue. “Who are you?”
“Who are you?” the girl replied, tilting her head.
“I’m Cate. With a C.”
The girl looked around. “We are nowhere near the sea.”
“No.” Cate shook her head. “Spelled with a C.”
The girl was on her feet in an instant. She crossed the clearing so fast, Cate didn’t see her move. “A spell, you say?” Her green eyes glinted. “With the sea?” She took Cate’s hand and snapped her fingers, lighting a spark between them. The woods melted, dripping away around them, and the coastline shifted into focus, complete with the cries of sea birds and the smell of brine. Cate whirled, but the girl’s grip was tight on her hand. She pulled Cate across the sand and into the shallow waves, letting them lap over her shoes. The chilly water seeped through her socks and between her toes.
“What is this?” Cate asked. “How did you do that?”
The girl’s pointed teeth glinted in her smile. “Ah, Cate of the Sea. There is so much power to be wielded, but only for those strong enough to hold it.”
Cate swallowed. The girl’s words hung in the air heavy with threat, hope, and promise. If Cate only reached out, could she touch them? Could she grasp the power herself? She found her hand had risen, unbidden, her fingers stretching out to touch something she could not name.
The girl lifted her hand and snapped her fingers again. The spark lit between them, jolting the woods back into place. “Are you strong enough to hold such power, Cate of the Sea?”
Cate cocked her head. “Why do you keep calling me that?”
The girl laughed out loud. “You called yourself that. Have you forgotten already?”
Cate sighed. “What I meant was—"
“You said what you meant.” The girl’s gaze had become dark and fierce. “Will your actions follow your words? Will you seize your power? Will you take control?”
Cate’s breath shortened, and her pulse sped. She was hardly certain this girl was real, or the woods, or any of it. But the word formed on her lips easily: “Yes.”
The girl nodded to the pool. “Walk into the pool. Walk until you’re all the way under. The power will come to you.”
Taking a deep breath, Cate stepped forward and into the pool. The water was surprisingly warm, not at all like the chill of the coastal waves. The sparkling golden surface dazzled Cate’s eyes, glowing ever brighter as she pushed forward through the water, becoming blinding as it reached her neck. She held her breath and took a final step, letting the water close over her head.
With a jolt, Cate sat up in her seat. Around her, other students turned to snicker at her as Mr. Bell crossed his arms over his chest.
“That’s it, Cate. Detention, all week. Report here after the final bell today.”
She knew she ought to be peeved about detention, but these at least felt duly earned. Cate shook her head, clearing the dream away.
Yet her feet squished wetly in their socks.
After classes ended for the day, Cate made her way back to Mr. Bell’s classroom for detention. He set her to writing an essay about respect for her teacher, but interrupted her not long after she had begun.
“Do you find my classes boring, Cate?”
Cate paused in the middle of the sentence she had been writing. “No, sir.”
“Hm.” He walked to the desk next to Cate’s and leaned against it. “You fell asleep during my class today. If it wasn’t boredom, then what?”
Cate glanced up. His expression was curious, not hostile, but what could she say? She didn’t remember falling asleep, only being suddenly whisked outside to meet a strange girl in the woods. It had felt so real, yet she had woken up in the classroom. “I don’t know. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“Everything okay at home?”
Cate bit her lip. “Yes sir, fine.”
Mr. Bell peered at her, but Cate kept her eyes on her paper. She knew what happened to kids when teachers called protective services. Last thing she needed, really. But he didn’t press her. Instead, he stood. “Come on. I’ll drive you home since I kept you late today. Deal?”
Cate considered the walk home, and the grainy salt and sand she could still feel between her toes. She thought about what her father would say if she arrived home late. What he would do. “That would be great. Thank you.” She packed her things into her backpack. “I didn’t finish my essay.”
Mr. Bell smiled. “Don’t worry. You can finish tomorrow. You’re with me all week, after all.” He led her out of the classroom and outside to his small car. Cate settled her backpack between her knees on the floorboard as Mr. Bell started the car. “Where do you live, Cate?”
She told him her address. He typed it into his GPS, then pulled out into the road. They rode in silence for a while, Mr. Bell glancing at her every now and then. “You sure everything is okay at home? Nothing you want to tell me?”
Cate looked at him out of the corner of her eye and shrugged. “It’s fine. Really.” Why was he so insistent?
“Hm.” Mr. Bell kept his eyes on the road but moved his hand to settle it on her shoulder. “You can talk to me about anything, you know. I won’t judge. And I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to. You know that, right?”
His hand lay heavily on her shoulder, his fingers draped onto her back. “Yes, sir.”
“Hey, we’re not at school now.” Mr. Bell smiled at her. “No need to be so formal. Why don’t you call me Daniel?”
Cate swallowed and rolled her shoulder. Mr. Bell gave it a small squeeze and moved his hand back to the steering wheel. “No? Maybe just Mr. Bell then.”
The car suddenly felt far too small, her knee far too near Mr. Bell, his hands far too large and his arms far too long. “Okay. Yes, sir. I mean.” She swallowed again. “Mr. Bell.”
He smiled and glanced at her. “See? That wasn’t so hard.” He looked ahead again but his smile remained. “I’ll convince you to call me Daniel in time, I’m sure.”
Cate pressed against the door. She thought about the door, and the thin sheet of metal and plastic that separated her from the world speeding past beyond it. If she opened it and pushed herself out, how much would it hurt? How much skin would she leave on the asphalt? How much blood would she smear across the road?
But Mr. Bell was slowing the car, turning into a lot, pulling into a parking space, and pulling the handbrake. “Come on,” he said, the smile still on his lips. “I’ll buy you an ice cream. Everybody likes ice cream, right?”
Cate nodded, though she couldn’t say why. After all, it was true: She did like ice cream. When her mom had taken her out for ice cream, she’d always had the best time of her life licking the drips before they ran over her fingers, clattering along the wooden boardwalk, slurping the last of the melted sweetness out of the bottom of the cone.
But her mom was gone now, and Mr. Bell had said he would take her home, not out for ice cream.
Cate stepped out and shouldered her backpack as Mr. Bell locked the car. She followed him to the ice cream stand where a boy not much older than herself dished mint chocolate chip into a cone for her. She took it as Mr. Bell paid for her cone and his own plain chocolate. He put a hand on her shoulder and steered her out along a pier.
They walked to the end of the pier, the wooden boards creaking beneath their feet. Cate licked at her ice cream, though it sat heavy in her stomach. She wanted to be home, eating dinner and getting ready to do her homework. She’d taken this ride to make it home on time, but now there was no chance of that. She dreaded to think what her father would say when she came home late. Mr. Bell’s hand traveled down her side and crept under her backpack to rest on the small of her back, his palm warm through her shirt. Her skin prickled under his touch, but every time she tried to move away his hand followed. Its weight was inescapable, chasing her to the end of the pier.
Cate licked the last of her ice cream out of the bottom of the cone. Beyond the end of the pier, the sea crashed, its white foam cresting and spreading on the waves, tinged pink in the sunset. The smell of the brine filled Cate’s nostrils, even as Mr. Bell’s hand slid lower down her back. She stiffened. They had reached the end of the pier, and its wooden railing pressed against her ribs. Mr. Bell stepped closer to her. There was no way forward, and he stood between her and the way back.
“You’re such a bright girl, Cate,” he said, his fingers beginning to rub against her waist. “I know Alex gives you a hard time. I probably should have kept him in detention, too. But I didn’t want more time with him.” He put a hand on her shoulder and turned her, so she had to face him. “I wanted more time with you.”
Cate’s heart raced. Her feet felt nailed to the wooden boards of the pier. Mr. Bell leaned forward, his expression hungry. Cate’s mouth went dry. This couldn’t be happening. Someone would see. Someone would help her. He would stop, surely, any moment.
But he didn’t stop.
He leaned closer, and closer, and then his mouth was touching Cate’s. A bubble rose in Cate’s throat as Mr. Bell’s tongue slithered into her mouth. Her pulse roared in her ears, or perhaps it was the sea—the roar of the waves coming to claim her and steal her out of this moment, sweep here away to somewhere far from his reach.
A calm like the slow rise of the tide came over Cate in that moment. The smell of brine still filled her nose, and now it was in her throat, and she felt the crushing pressure of the hadalpelagic like a loving hug, and her hair danced in the thermohaline currents. The bioluminescence of her sisters in the depths flashed, their message glittering like the sunlight on the golden pool. Cate opened her mouth wide, and rather than letting Mr. Bell in—for he had pressed his way there of his own accord— instead flowed out the sea, its waters rich and murky with salts, sediment, and krill. Mr. Bell made to draw away from her, but she gripped his shoulders with the ferocity of the crushing depths and pulled him closer, pressing deeper and deeper as the water flowed through her, into his mouth and down his throat, filling him to overflowing. His eyes grew wide and his hands pushed at her, but she was the sea, and she could not be restrained, could not be held back by his small mortal efforts.
Mr. Bell’s movements slowed, then stopped, and he collapsed at Cate’s feet. Cate stumbled aside as breath filled her lungs again, backing away from the form at her feet. She looked up hurriedly, but there was no one on the pier, no one to see what she had done. What he had done before that. She prodded him with a foot, but he made no response. His skin was a strange color. It suited him much better, Cate decided.
She stooped, pushed hard, and rolled what remained of Mr. Bell off the edge of the pier. He landed with a splash below. Cate whispered to the current, and it swirled around him, drawing him out to the open ocean. She watched from the end of the pier until he faded into the horizon.
She sighed, turning back to the land. She was still too young to drive, and the keys to Mr. Bell’s car were probably in his pocket anyway. She was going to be so late getting home. Perhaps she could simply not go home, and instead go back to the woods behind the school and sleep beside the golden pool. But then her father would probably call the police, and if they found her sleeping in the woods the day Mr. Bell disappeared, it would surely not go well for her.
The shadows lengthened as Cate trod the twisting streets toward home. The sound of the surf faded behind her as the pier and the remains of Mr. Bell receded. Cate thought she ought to feel bad about what she’d done. She ought to be torn with guilt and grief. But she found that instead, a smile tugged at her lips. When the bile had risen in her throat, the brine rose with it. The girl in the woods, the golden pool, the sudden shore—all of it had been real. And now, Cate had truly claimed her power. She had seized control.
Her step on the unforgiving asphalt felt lighter somehow, buoyed, even lofty. She found that she was unburdened by the creeping terror that usually accompanied her if she walked alone at night—the nameless fear of unknown entities watching from the darkness, measuring her, calculating. Her chest swelled with new confidence. Let them try. She would call the power of the deep and bend the tide to her will against any who might harm her.
By the time she got home, the sun was long gone, and the shadows were deep. Cate eased the front door open and stepped gingerly inside, but her father’s voice rang loud. “Where the hell have you been?”
Cate slipped her backpack off her shoulder and closed the door as her father rose, looming, from his chair. “Sorry, Dad. I … I got detention.”
“Detention?” His voice bounced from one wall of the living room to another. “What did you do?”
“Nothing.” Cate lifted her chin. “A boy snapped my bra. I turned and told him to stop.”
Her father glared down at her, the sour stink of beer thick on his breath. “A boy, eh? Are you seeing him? Are you sneaking out?”
“What? No.” Cate crossed her arms over her chest. “I don’t even like him.”
“Then why did you let him touch you, hm?” Cate’s father grabbed both her shoulders and shook her slightly. “Why did you let him put his hands on you?”
“Your hands are on me. Should I stop you as well?” Cate looked up at her father. His nostrils widened as his eyes narrowed. His hand sprang into the air and struck Cate on the cheek. Even though she expected it, the slap still stung. Her eyes watered, but the tears didn’t fall. She blinked rapidly.
“Watch your mouth,” he said, shoving her away from him. “And watch yourself at school, too. If I find out you’ve been throwing yourself at the boys again, you’ll have worse than a detention.”
He went back to his chair and flopped heavily into it. Cate made no reply. She knew it would do no good. Ever since her mother had died, he’d become nastier and nastier. She could barely remember a time when he had treated her with any care or kindness, even when Mom had lived. And now, as she came home in the depths of night, reveling in the power of nature to take back the life it had given—a power she had grabbed and used to her own ends—her father neither noticed nor cared. She was, to him, no more than an object: a thing to be controlled, to be forced into a shape not her own, to be used for his own purposes when he needed a target and ignored when he didn’t.
Deep inside her chest, the sea called to Cate. Silently, she returned its call. The power circulated—waiting, ready.
She watched as her father lifted a can of beer to his lips. It was no seawater, but it would do. Cate didn’t even have to kiss him, as she had done with Mr. Bell. Instead, she merely stretched her fingers—stretched, and thinned, and swirled as they turned golden, not like the sun but just as deadly. She slipped her melted gold fingers down her father’s throat, down into his lungs, filling his mouth as he sputtered and clawed at his neck. She sank deeper into him, down, down, down, reaching into his capillaries, which quivered and pulsed, their shapes now familiar to Cate. Some of them burst as she nestled into them, leaching the copper salt of blood into the bitter tang of beer. Like his capillaries, Cate’s father shuddered and jerked. The can clattered to the floor as Cate reached deep into his body, swirling his favorite poison throughout his blood, pumping it into his heart. Ba dum. Ba dum. Ba dum.
Dum. It grew still and silent.
Cate surged back and away, retreating like the surf before the tsunami, flowing back into herself. She shook her head and stepped back. Her father’s eyes stared unseeing at the ceiling, and a trickle of bloody beer, foamy and pink, seeped from his mouth.
Cate turned, threw open the door to her house, and fled into the darkness. The smell of sour hops hung thick on Cate’s skin, which felt sticky and wrong, and she rubbed at it as she ran, letting the clean salt of her sweat wash away the evidence of what she’d done, what she’d been. She ran without purpose, without direction, until she realized that the road she was on ended at the beach. Not the pier, not the place where she’d pushed Mr. Bell’s body into the waves, but a small beach—one full of rocks and empty of boardwalks. She sped up her pace, knowing how close she now was.
The beach neared, and Cate raced over the sand, her feet flinging grains into the air behind her. She reached the water and kept going, pushing into the surf as it pushed back against her. She opened her mouth and out tore a vicious scream, a roar laden with anger, fear, and exasperation. She screamed until her throat hurt, and then she screamed some more, but the waves merely lapped at her chest. The sea made no reply.
Finally, her throat raw and her hair soaked, Cate waded back to the dry shore. Her knees gave out, and she tumbled to the sand. Turning, she sat, knees drawn to her chest, her arms wrapped around them. She watched the moonlit sea, ever moving, always unchanging, as the waves rolled over each other and onto the sand.
She realized someone was sitting beside her. Cate turned and found the girl from the woods, her posture mimicking Cate’s own. Cate spoke, her voice raw and hoarse. “Why?”
The girl looked at her. “You needed the power of the sea. You called on your power in your time of need. You took your power, as you meant to do.”
Cate balled her hands into fists. “Why did this happen? Why me?”
“Are you asking about your power, or the actions of those who made you realize its might?” The girl sighed when Cate made no reply and looked out to the sea. “Men claim the power of destruction. They destroy life. They destroy the forest. They destroy the air.” She glanced at Cate. “They destroy innocence.”
The susurrus of the waves filled the silence that followed. “Do they destroy the sea?”
The girl grinned. “They try. But they have only added to her power. They have melted ice into the sea and churned the waves into tsunamis. They have emptied their poisons into her, yet she rains them back down tenfold.” The girl cocked her head. “But I am not telling you anything you do not already know. What the sea knows, you know. What the sea does, you do.”
Cate sniffled and peered at the girl. “Are you saying I am the sea now?”
The girl shrugged. “If you want. You know how to accept your form. You know how to draw your power.” She gestured at Cate’s body. “You can stay like this as long as you like, I suppose.” She cocked her head. “But do you wish to?”
Cate looked out across the waves, resting her chin on her forearms. She had felt wrong, slipping into her father’s beer, swirling with a tacky bitterness. But that had been a half-form, a sloppy choice borne of necessity. When she had swirled, thick with salt and foam, into Mr. Bell’s startled mouth, she had felt only powerful, vengeful, rightful.
“Will I still be me? If I join the water?” Her chin on her arms made her head bob as she spoke.
The girl laughed. “Would you name every drop in the surf? Could you measure where one ends and another begins?” She sat back, resting her palms in the sand. “You will always be you. But your idea of yourself may change. Who you are may shift.” She cast a shrewd look at Cate. “Yet, isn’t that likely to happen regardless?”
Cate made no response but sat looking at the water as the tide meandered higher and higher up the shore. As the surf swirled around her legs, she came to realize the girl from the woods no longer sat beside her. Cate was unconcerned. The girl belonged to the woods, but Cate belonged to the sea. The sea, unforgiving, unassuming, unrelenting, called to her once more: Come. Come.
Cate knew she could leave, could walk back home, and return to the world of men—learn to twist herself into the shapes they required her to be. Instead, she remained, watching the reflections of the stars sparkle and shimmer on the black surface of the water as it rose and rose and rose, engulfing her, tugging her out, and apart, and home.
ELIZABETH RUBIO lives in Austin, Texas, in a house that is home to more cats, spiders, and snails than people. If you ask the creatures in just the right way, they might tell you a story. Find more of Elizabeth's work on Curious Fictions or follow @rubiowrites on Twitter.