“She works nights at Sunny’s,” said Miguel. “At the drive-thru.”
“You’ve spoken with her?” asked Athan.
Miguel leaned in close, whispering over his half-empty beer. “I got somethin’ from her.”
Had Athan not worn a glamour disguise, his curled horns would have twitched.
“What?” he asked.
“This… feeling,” whispered Miguel. “I asked her for passion, man. Like, how I felt when I left the service. I had money and I had no boss or bills or nothin’. Just… everythin’ ahead.”
“She gave you that?” asked Athan, but he’d already decided to go to Sunny’s.
He’d been too long in this world. Leaving the realms had seemed the right thing to do, long ago. He’d traded that place for this one, buying passage from a sea nymph who took him on a journey that lasted untold days and nights.
He knew it had been worth it. There was more work here, and less danger. He had a job and a few friends like Miguel to laugh and share stories with. There was plumbing and cell phones and Cinnabon rolls!
And yet… Athan often found himself lying awake at night, trying to remember the way back home. In the quiet, in-between hours he would play his pipes softly, mournful notes echoing around his empty apartment.
It took him three visits before he found Mamma Essie working the drive-thru. She wore a glamour disguise herself. If he squinted, he could just make out golden coloured eyes and scales that shimmered under the surface of her skin.
He remembered Miguel’s advice.
Order the ‘special’ special. Pay whatever she asks.
Mamma Essie scowled at Athan a good half-minute before she spoke.
“First kiss,” she said, pursing her lips. “Who was it?”
“Kethra, on the royal island,” he said after a moment. “On the tree with the swing over the bay. Not far from the palace.”
Mamma Essie reached from her window and touched his forehead. Athan had been the briefest sensation he’d misplaced something before he felt the pull of waves and the sting of salt spray.
He drove home, glaze-eyed, through towering buildings and an undergrowth of car yards, tattoo parlors, and diners. Yet in his mind, he wandered barefoot through gnarled woods, a chorus of pipes echoing all around, with the rise-and-fall of the sea flowing in his veins.
Two weeks later, Athan sweated in the drive-thru line. He’d been back almost every other day, trading memories for a hit of the past. He’d been missing shifts at work, forgetting people’s names, and losing things, but he didn’t care.
A car honked and he inched forward.
“You again,” said Mamma Essie. “Time to go home?”
Athan nodded, his hands trembling on the steering wheel. He sensed his disguise slipping, caught a glance of his horns in the rear-view mirror.
“It’ll cost,” said Mamma Essie.
“All you are, for all you were.”
She touched him and then she was gone.
The sound of waves crashed around as Athan pulled ahead, watching the parking lot collapse into sand. Trees punched through the asphalt and glittering water flooded all around.
Athan slipped forward, falling beneath the surface, the cold sucking the air from his lungs. He raised his head and licked the salt on his lips. The wind danced across the bay, shouting in whispers of places plucked from before.
He began to swim, towards the pines and cypress that buzzed with cicadas and the lilting songs of home.
Paul Alex Gray enjoys writing linear and interactive fiction that cuts a jagged line to a magical real world. His work has been published in Nature Futures, McSweeney’s, 365 Tomorrows and others. Paul grew up by the beaches of Australia, then traveled the world, and now lives in Canada with his wife and two children. Over the years, Paul has been a startup founder, game designer and mentor to technology entrepreneurs. Chat with him on Twitter @paulalexgray or visit his website.