When the changes began, Liska asked her mother the same question every day. Sometimes, Liska asked in a whisper, holding her mother’s hand, fingers tracing the barnacles along her mother’s knuckles. Sometimes, she spoke forcefully, not to her mother, but to the cutting world, the terrible green hospital curtains, the scent of acidic vomit, and the too-thin blankets. She asked the question to the trees and her own tired reflection. Liska never shouted the question, even though she sat in her tiny car during her lunch breaks and wailed at the grey sky. She needed the question to be heard clearly by the ones who know. Answered perfectly by the ones who care.
“Are you afraid?”
And her mother always shook her head. “I’m just a little sad.”
“The nature of curses is strange,” the doctor told Liska and her mother. Some ancestor probably wronged someone. Or maybe they were blameless—maybe a witch hated them for no reason. Who knows? The illogical fantastic seeps through generations, striking whenever it pleases.
The doctor wore a neat purple tie. He smiled gently, just like all the nurses—careful smiles, rehearsed and wonderful, because they knew the truth of it. There is no cure.
Liska held her mother’s hand, repeating to herself to only think of today, not tomorrow. To treat this as normal. She tried not to brush against the pillars of violet coral that had erupted along her mother’s arm. Pink shrimp and little fish like silver knives darted about the coral, swimming impossibly through the air. Walking through the hospital’s parking lot, hungry seagulls had trailed them—one of the birds had swooped low, and Liska had nearly hit it with her purse.
Liska asked the doctor how they couldn’t have known. Aren’t there tests? The doctor folded his arms in a practiced way. No, no tests. Only stories, warnings, passed down through generations. But Liska’s mother said she was adopted—no one knew. And whoever the curse started with is probably dead.
“I see,” the doctor said, and it was done. Then he spoke of pain medication, to ease the transition, and Liska’s mother leaned over to her daughter and whispered, “I can’t remember the last time we went to the beach.”
There were bad days. Liska woke one night to her mother screaming—she rushed to her bedroom and watched as her mother’s forehead split open, golden elkhorn coral exploding through the ragged wound, spilling blood on the blue pillow. Liska’s mother, dripping sweat and eyes vacant, asked, “What’s happening?” Liska didn’t know what to say.
Liska’s name escaped her mother sometimes. Couldn’t remember where she was, what happened. Tentacles darted from holes in her skin, delicate fans sprouted from her back and collected dust. Liska’s mother was changing to rock; her bed groaned beneath her. Soon, she would stop eating and talking. She would die, as the doctor explained, her organs and flesh hardening into a reef, a home for eels and fish that floated through the air.
Frustration, and a need to move and be still simultaneously, seized Liska during the bad days. She wanted to ask her mother too many questions. There was no one else in the family—what would Liska do once she was alone? And once the change finished, what would she do with her mother’s remains? She couldn’t leave a reef in the backyard, fish swimming under an oak tree. It seemed wrong, so she would take her mother’s body to the ocean. The curse-fish would be happier there. But how would she move all that rock? When the questions began to crash together, Liska had to stop, sit, and close her eyes. Anger bubbled. She’d have to rent a flatbed to haul her dead mother—the thought caused the bile to rise, tears to flow, the dread to pulse like a migraine.
There were good days. An anemone sprouted on her mother’s knee. One day, a clownfish from nowhere moved in. The fish popped in and out of the anemone’s tentacles tentatively, like a little dance. Liska’s mother always smiled at that. There was a pufferfish too that startled easily, puffing up whenever Liska’s phone rang, floating like a balloon around her mother’s head.
“You’re making me dizzy!” Liska’s mother shouted, laughing. And they would whisper to the pufferfish to be calm. Everything would be fine.
Liska’s thoughts never slept. One night, she stared at passing headlights through her bedroom window and wondered how her mother wasn’t afraid.
It’s because she’s strong, Liska thought. Always the rock—this thought made Liska smile, and then the guilt struck her down instantly.
My mother is so many things I’m not, she thought. Always listening. Carrying other people’s pain and disappointment so they didn’t have to struggle alone. She talked to strangers on the bus and in the grocery store and hugged them and listened. Liska wouldn’t do that. I have enough problems of my own.
Liska threw back the covers and went to her mother’s room. Phosphorescent shrimp burned in the dark, dancing around her mother’s head—she was awake and watching the lightshow. Liska sat by her mother’s bed.
“I’m afraid,” Liska said.
Of losing you. Never speaking with you again. Never laughing together. Of being alone. Of finding out the curse is in me too.
“So many things,” Liska said.
Her mother smiled. “Me too.”
“But you said—”
“Tonight, I’m afraid. But the fear isn’t always there.”
“What do you think about,” Liska said. “When you’re afraid?”
“Will you take me to the water once it happens?”
Liska nodded, reaching for her mother’s hand.
“Then a part of the ocean will always belong to us. How many people can say that?”
Liska smiled. “Not many.”
As Liska sat by her mother’s bedside, counting dancing lights, the gnawing fear subsided.
It would be back. But for the night, for a heartbeat moment, it was forgotten.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stefan Slater is a writer from Los Angeles. His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show. Follow him on Twitter: @StefanASlater