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Like A Different Species by Mathew Gostelow


They were like a different species – blonde, tanned, lean, with straight, white teeth, and cars they got for their 17th birthdays. We called them NPCs – normal, popular, confident kids.

But I knew my place. I hung out with the lanky, dorky misfit kids. Bus-riders, with our pale skin and dark humour, faded t-shirts and angry spots. Each with a nerdy obsession, hidden beneath the surface, like a superhero alter-ego.

Tim loved kung-fu flicks and anime. (I streamed every episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion so we could rave about it together.) Steve was into swords and sorcery games, so we became his D&D team. Benny was slick at sleight of hand, and we would ooh and aah over his coin magic routines.

For me it was South American art. My beaten-up sketchbooks were full of pseudo-Aztec designs – animals and ancient gods in thick black marker lines. The guys always encouraged me, said every drawing was my best yet, that I should do book covers or album sleeves.

I was the only girl in the gang, but the boys were cool about it all. Never gave me a hard time, never came on to me. We made each other laugh, shared our hobbies, looked out for each other.

#

At night you’re underwater, deep in murky dark – silent slipping, never seen, you weave your way through weeds and reeds.

#

The NPCs didn’t have a name for us, because we were mostly invisible to them. It was better that way. We kept our heads down – recurring excuses to get out of sport, doctor’s notes so we wouldn’t have to swim in PE, never trying too hard in lessons.

We stayed low, moved unseen. Contact with an NPC inevitably meant bullying, humiliation, or worse.

Like last year, when Tim was quietly scrolling Instagram in assembly, and Jamie Ricketts absolutely destroyed him in front of the whole school. He grabbed Tim’s phone – waving it around – shouting “Oh my god, you furry homo freak!” The screen showed a manga drawing of two wolfmen with buff chests, kissing. Tim flushed deep scarlet, drowning in shame under the sudden tsunami of attention, pleading for his phone as the NPCs erupted in jeering laughter.

#

Water glides cold across your gills. You surge, embrace your element, and feel your power at last. Moonlight makes you sparkle when you surface, dancing on your onyx scales and spines.

#

I lived on the edge of town – in the woods, by a lake. That makes it sound nice, but it wasn’t. A ramshackle house, small and damp, built from warped, brittle wood. The lake was shitty too – a far cry from those sunny, clear stretches of water where the NPCs spent their weekends. Our lake was dank, weedy, home to mosquitos and pike. According to my dad, people in town used to say a creature lived in there. They’d threaten their kids. “If you don’t do your homework, the lake monster will get you…”

Living out there made it easier for me to stay off the NPCs’ radar. So when Jamie approached me that day, I freaked out. He was peak NPC. Athletic, square-jawed, blokey. Long blond hair and blue eyes. Total jock cliché. The one that every giggling bimbo wanted to date. What the hell did he want with a loser like me?

“Hey, Swampy-Sue,” he called out. The NPCs called me Swampy-Sue, on account of living up by the shitty lake. I kept walking towards the bus stop, pretending not to hear.

“Sue, I’m talking to you. My friend Joe says you’re good at art.”

I stopped and turned to face Jamie, avoiding his cool, confident blue gaze.

“I like drawing, yeah,” I mumbled.

A blush prickled up my neck. What a dorky thing to say. Why did I care, though? I was perfectly happy being labelled a nerd by these vacuous twats. Wasn't I?

Jamie glanced up and down the road, as though checking whether anyone could see him talking to this walking pondweed.

“Yeah, well, I’d like to see your art. I want to come to your house.”

I protested weakly. He shouldn't. There was no need. Jamie just stared as I babbled, a cruel half-smile dawning slowly on his lips.

“Anyway, I know where you live. I'll come round tonight, about six. And stop being weird about this. I'm not trying to bed you or anything.”

He laughed to himself and ran a hand through his long hair as he turned to walk away. Pausing to look over his shoulder, Jamie fired a parting shot

“Still though. Best if people don't know, right? We both have a reputation to think of.”

#

You hunt within dark waters. Teeth like needles, claws like knives. Fingers splayed to speed you as you scour the deeps for prey.

#

I couldn't think straight when I got home. I paced, looked at my sketchbooks – seeing them with a new, harshly critical eye. Thinking of someone like Jamie looking at my art. The ridicule. The shame.

I'd only show my latest book. Keep it short. Get him gone as soon as possible. He probably wouldn't even show up – just wanted to see me squirm like a worm on a hook.

Except he did come. Just after seven, right when I was starting to relax – there was Jamie, on the porch, in baggy shorts and a hooded top.

As I opened the door, he looked at the house with disdain.

“Oh, wow! No wonder you don't invite people out here. It must be kind of embarrassing for you.”

#

There are bones down there, where the weight of water hugs you tight – where silt and dirt can hide a thousand wrongs. Skeletons of nights long past, picked clean by hungry mouths.

#

I took him to the decking, out the back, on stilts over the lake. Rotten boards crunched like breakfast cereal underfoot, threatening to give way. The sun set slowly, in marmalade shades, behind the trees, and mosquitoes darted, whining through the air. I hoped the threat of bites would keep this visit brief.

We sat, side by side, either end of a bench seat, looking out at the lake. Jamie’s nose wrinkled at the dank air drifting off the water.

“Smells like something died back here.”

I gritted my teeth, passed him the sketchbook, wanting it to be over. He flicked through. I died inside when he scoffed at an angular drawing of a monkey. Eventually, he reached blank pages.

“Is that all?” he asked, idly curious.

I nodded, face flushing, betraying the lie.

“Well, whatever. I think they’re really good.”

Jamie turned to face me.

You’re really good,” he added.

My blush grew hotter and redder under his steady gaze.

“What it is…” he continued. “I turn 18 in a few weeks, and my dad said he’d get me a tattoo. I want a picture of a snake. Could you draw one for me?”

Thoughts raced. Pulse raced. If it meant he'd just go home, I’d do it. I agreed,

“Great, show me.” He handed me the sketchbook.

“What, now?”

Jamie nodded expectantly.

I thought for a moment, flipped to an empty page and dug in my pocket for a marker.

“How big should it be, the snake?”

He turned his ice-blue stare on me again and raised one eyebrow suggestively. I felt my face glow and dropped my eyes to the pad.

“I was thinking of getting it on my ankle. Like, it would be wrapped around.”

He lifted one of his muscular, tanned legs, and draped it across my lap.

“You could draw it right there, if you like. So I can see what it looks like.”

I was sweating. Heart pounding. What was going on? I hated this guy, hated everything the NPCs stood for. He hated me too, and everyone like me. So why was he flirting with me? And why did it feel so good?

#

In dreams, you know the darkness of the lake will keep you safe. At night, you know the freedom of the depths. In sleep, you feel the water’s chill that cuts you to your bones and helps to soothe your fevered, troubled mind.

#

Tentatively, I let my fingers rest on Jamie’s firm calf. He didn’t kick them away. With my other hand, I marked out the shape of a stylised serpent, coiled around his ankle and up his shin. His leg was covered in fine hairs that shone gold in the setting sun’s glow.

As I worked, Jamie lay back on the bench, watching me, relaxing with a deep sigh. I blocked out the chaotic storm of confusion inside my skull and focused on drawing. I felt his gaze on my face, as my eyes remained fixed on his leg, on the snake.

After a while, as the picture took shape, Jamie sat up, leaning forward to inspect it more closely.

“What do you think?” I asked nervously.

He swung his leg down, rolling the ankle to view it from different angles. He turned to me, his shoulder touching mine, his thigh pressed against my own.

“I really like it,” Jamie purred softly in my ear.

Our faces were close – his breath hot on my cheek, a scent of mint gum. He stared into my eyes for a second that stretched agonisingly.

In a moment of madness, I kissed him. As our lips met, I felt a cold shock of panic explode inside me. What was I doing?

Jamie pushed me away, looking horrified.

“Get off me, you freak!”

I sprang up, giving him space. My head spun. My words tumbled. I was sorry. I misunderstood.

“Jesus! I should never have come out here, you fucking weirdo.”

Jamie stood now, grabbing his phone from the other end of the bench, his face changing as he did – theatrical dismay replaced by cruel humour, smug satisfaction.

He jabbed and swiped the screen, then turned it to face me. A video played, showing us sitting side by side. Shame flooded my chest as I watched myself lean in to kiss him, leaping away as he cried out.

“Ewww, Swampy-Sue,” Jamie sneered. “My friend Joe said you had a crush on me, but I didn’t believe it. He’s going to piss himself laughing when he sees this.”

I felt sick, seeing myself on screen, looking so desperate, so stupid.

“I think I’m going to have to share this clip. Should I put it on Insta, Snap, or TikTok? What about all three? Everyone is going to know.”

I was babbling, pleading, tears pricking my eyes. Jamie folded his arms – triumphant, cold.

If he did this, it was over. People would never forget – my friends, his friends, the whole school would know. This would wreck me.

“Unless… What will you do for me?” Jamie leered. “What would you do, to persuade me not to post this?”

#

The waters know you, know your truth – the truth you hide from earth and air. The fluid poetry of you, the hunger that you bury deep within.

#

In one motion, I stepped towards Jamie and shoved his shoulders hard. The superior sneer slid from his face as he tumbled backwards off the deck, into the lake.

My forward momentum became a dive. As I speared the cold water, my body transformed – eyes growing wide and round like amber lamps, rows of needle teeth erupting through my gums. My skin hardened to a shell of sleek black scales. Spines splayed down my spine. My fingers webbed, stretched long – dagger claws bursting from their tips.

Under water, where I belonged, my truest self was revealed.

Moving sleek and fast, pursuing Jamie’s thrashing, flailing form, I surged at him, pushed him down, away from shore, to the middle of the lake. The depths swallowed us. He screamed in muffled bubbles, blue eyes wide with terror, my monstrous face close to his.

I slammed Jamie’s body into the flat rocks at the bottom of the lake, knocking the last air out of him. He drew dank water deep into his lungs, struggling for just a moment more, before he fell still.

It was done.

I fed a little – made his blood one with the water – then weighed the body down with rocks, retrieved his phone and sunk it in the mud. The lake would keep my secrets. Fish swarmed to nibble-feed, stirring Jamie’s long blonde hair to dance among the weeds down in the dark.

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