An advantage of living on one of the lesser-known islands is that during the off season, the beach is nearly deserted, especially at night.
Water slaps against the dock's wooden supports, spitting droplets of salt water into the night air. The surf rushes like breath in our ears while the foam-capped waves retreat from the beach, tiny shells and pebbles rolling in their wake.
It isn't cold, not really. It rarely gets truly cold here. But it's chilly, cool enough to raise goosebumps on our bare arms and make us shiver in the shade of the dock. We stay silent, though, not letting our teeth chatter, not whispering about our plans for the night.
All three of us are staring at the last house on the beach with any lights on. It's a kitchen light. I saw someone walking around inside. It won't be long now before they finally go to bed and that warm light winks out. Not long now.
We've tucked ourselves up under the old wooden dock, right at the beginning, where the sand begins to slope down towards the water. It occurs to me suddenly that we have no plan if someone happens to find us. They'd never guess what we were doing there, but it would certainly be suspicious; three girls huddled under the dock in bathing suits at nearly midnight.
It hardly matters. There's no one about. Even the night fishers, previously resting in lawn chairs while their long fishing poles are poked into the sand at the waterline, have gone. The moonlight is so bright we'd see anyone coming long before they noticed us, anyway.
It's a clear night, and the moon is full. That's why we chose this night; if it were less than a full moon we'd never be able to see well enough underwater. We would have had to come to the beach anyway, but clear skies and a bright moon makes it much easier.
The wind blows across us from over the water. The salty tang in the air reminds me of how thirsty I am. But it's not a thirst a glass of water will cure. It's stronger than that. Deeper. My entire body longs for water. Being this close without going in is awful, and makes me fidgety.
I scratch at a patch of dry skin on my left arm.
I'm wearing an old, loose t-shirt over my bathing suit. I hope I don't forget it when we leave. I couldn't wear my glasses either, so things more than a few feet away are a bit fuzzy. I swallow and it's more like a nervous gulp than I intend. I force myself to take a deep breath. I'm getting paranoid, and I can feel a tension headache starting at the base of my skull.
Gabrielle is to my right, kneeling, watching the house. I can hear her breathing and wonder if she's afraid. This night is always nerve-wracking. I miss when we were little and it was exciting- a wild escapade into the darkness when we were supposed to be in bed. Back then everything had been a thrill, walking the long path at night, swimming at night...now every noise and shadow made me look twice, check and recheck that we were really alone. I didn't have my cell phone if something went wrong. That alone was enough to make me jumpy.
Elaina is between and behind us, facing the other direction, watching out the other side of the dock. We've never been interrupted before, but better safe than sorry. Better a paranoid minnow than a shark stuffed and mounted.
I twist to look back at her and she's already looking back at me. She heard the pebbles shift beneath me. She's wondering if it's time to go. I offer a quick smile and she returns it before turning away again.
The light winks out.
I don't have to say a word. Gabrielle and I turn at the same time to Elaina and she gets the hint.
I pull my t-shirt over my head, trembling with a mixture of cold and excitement. My heart is pounding hard enough to make my hands shake. The air feels colder than it really is. I try to move slowly enough that the pebbles beneath my knees don't shift too much but it's hard when you're clumsy with chill and tension.
I fold my shirt, then hollow out a little space beneath the dock between the sand and the old wood. I cram the shirt in there as much as I can. Elaina and Gabrielle do the same, Gabrielle laying her black cover-up over Elaina's white shirt.
Had I been alone I might have spent more time taking deep breaths and trying to get myself to feel 'ready', but Gabrielle is on the move as soon as our clothes are hidden. Elaina follows her and I fumble to my feet so as not to be left behind. It's tough to stand; I've been kneeling for too long and my feet are numb.
Gabrielle walks swiftly but carefully down the slope beneath the dock and we follow. It's only a handful of strides until we reach the water.
This is the worst part- we can't move too quickly, in case someone hears the irregular splashes and wonders just what on earth we're doing, but we can't wait too long, in case someone sees.
Gabrielle and Elaina, a stride or two ahead of me, hesitate for only a moment before taking careful steps forward. I step in a moment later, the water lapping at my feet, the sand slurping at my toes.
Another reason to hurry is if we wait too long, the change will begin too early and we'll be stuck too far from deep water, horribly exposed until we can drag ourselves out of sight. That happened once when Gabrielle and I were much younger. The memory still makes me nauseous.
My skin tingles while I walk out into the water. I'm in up to my ankles. My knees. Thighs. When it's up to our waists and walking is hard, I take a deep breath and let myself fall forwards into the water. We're far enough from shore now that the splashes won't be noted if there's anyone around to hear.
My entire body is tingling now. I keep my eyes shut tight and swim on. In moments the tingling grows, turning into a sort of fizzy, bubbly feeling. Like I've turned into one of those tablets you drop in a glass of water when you have a stomachache. A ticklish feeling dances along my spine. Something like light, ghostly fingers on my lower back makes me shiver.
It's muscles, I know, and bone. My insides shifting and readjusting, my body rewriting itself as it has countless times before, in a process I've had explained to me but still don't quite understand. I feel it all and I'm not afraid. I keep my eyes shut until the tingling and tickling fade and my body no longer feels fizzy, until I feel like I own my body again.
When I open my eyes the sea floor is a good ten or twelve feet below me. Moonlight filters through the water in shafts of bluish light, dancing on the sand in silvery ethereal ribbons. A few crabs scuttle into shadow. Kelp and sea grass wave in the currents. I shiver again, and it has nothing to do with the cool water around me.
Elaina and Gabrielle are up ahead of me, waiting for me to catch up.
Swimming with a tail is so much easier than swimming with legs. Legs cut through the water clumsily, churning and kicking up sand. A tail is wonderful and graceful. I feel bad for regular people, but they don't know what they're missing anyway.
Gabrielle's tail is blue, a deep, soulful shade like sapphire, with a few accents of a blue as pale as a robin's egg. Elaina's is somewhere between goldfish orange and polished gold, and shines like fire in the sunlight. In the moonlight, though, both of their tails are subdued into shades of gray, silver, and deep teal. My own tail, vibrant green like healthy leaves, appears a dull gray with some areas of near black.
It doesn't matter what color it is. It's strong, and with a quick swish I've caught up to my friends.
Now that we're in the water, my nervousness has evaporated. We're safe now. The water embraces us like a mother and urges us to play, to forget the concerns weighing us down on land. And for the next hour or so, we will. It'll go by far too fast, but we'll do this again as soon as possible. We have to.
Together the three of us begin swimming for the tiny sandbar roughly two miles from shore, where we can rest and finally talk and splash and play without worrying about anyone seeing us. Where we can enjoy our time with our tails and pretend we never have to go back.
I don't slow down or stop when I reach them. I pass them, pumping my tail in the water, up and down, fast as I can.
Elaina swishes past me with a flash of scales. Gabrielle swoops beneath me and moves ahead. I can't laugh or shout underwater, so I just smile and push myself to move faster.
Maybe someday we'll have more than just an hour or two. Maybe someday we'll have the freedom we thirst for every month when we're close to drying out from lack of sea water. But now isn't the time to wonder about that.
I pass Gabrielle and she swats at my fin playfully. I ignore her and focus on Elaina, rapidly disappearing into the shadowy water ahead.
No, now isn't the time to worry. There are no responsibilities, troubles, or deadlines underwater. There's only the swish of the waves, the dancing light on the ground and our skin and our hair, and the flash of scales just out of sight ahead of me.