Fire and Water

by Lesley Speller

A small group of little girls laughed and whispered as the skinny, brown haired girl climbed out of the water and padded quickly over to where her friend Alice was standing.  She had just swum faster than she could ever remember swimming before in her life.  Her coach had stared at her stop watch in amazement before patting her on the back and telling her that they would have to talk to her parents about training for the Olympics.  Just as she reached her friend the other little girls called out in unison, "Mary Beth swims like a fish and smells like one too!"

Her eyes narrowed on the girl at the center of the group.  Tiffany was looking around at her friends making fish faces, giggling, and acting all together very pleased with herself. 

Mary Beth's face felt hot, and she clamped her fingers so tightly into fists that she could feel her fingernails cutting into her palm.  "Tiffany, I wish you would just..." she shouted at the other girl but couldn't think of anything nearly bad enough and instead just gritted her teeth and groaned.

Tiffany laughed again, and it set her whole little troupe off into a riot of giggles at Mary Beth's expense.  She stared at them all in utter embarrassment and anger, wanting nothing better than to take each one of them and hold them under the water until they couldn't laugh at her anymore.  She could almost see the other little girl's skin turning blue as she sank under the water.

It was at that moment that one of the teenagers who were playing on the high dive near where the girls were standing did a cannon ball that sent an enormous wave of water rushing over the edge of the pool.  It knocked Tiffany and two of her friends from their feet and back into the water.  Two curly little heads popped up almost immediately, but the third started sinking deeper and a halo of pink began to form around her head.

Mary Beth Clinker had never gone back to her swimming lessons after that day.  Her mother said that she didn't have to even when the coach came and convinced her father that he had a gold medalist in his house.  She had listened to them fight over it for hours that night and for many nights afterward.  Her mother didn't think that it would be a good idea for her to have to go back to a place where she had almost seen another little girl drown.  And Tiffany had almost drowned.  The coach had pulled her out of the water and given her mouth to mouth until she sputtered back to life.

She had heard her father and mother fight about it every now and then for years.  Her father was convinced that her mother's worry had made Mary Beth miss some grand opportunity.  It wasn't that she didn't like the water anymore but the idea of swimming in front of people left her feeling cold and clammy.  Her favorite place in the world was the swimming beach at Will'o'Wisp Lake behind the vacation house that her parents had owned for most of her life, and that is where she found herself when she was twenty-three years old, only a year after her parents had died in a car crash on their way to go skiing in Colorado.

She paced back and forth on the sand barefoot, feeling it squish between her toes.  The air was so thick and sticky with humidity that you could almost peel it from your skin but the water in the sand cooled her to the core.  There was a sliver of a moon in the starless sky, but a strange, faint illumination came from the thousands of fireflies that danced along the shore.

She turned on the flashlight again and let the beam fall on the piece of paper that she held in her hand.  It stated in very complex legal terms that everything Mary Beth had believed for her entire life was nothing but a lie.  She was not Mary Beth Clinker.  She was a nameless orphan that had been found on the steps of Jefferson County Medical.  How could it be that her parents had never told her that she was adopted?  In twenty-two years surely they could have found the time to mention it.

What if she had been kidnapped from parents who had really loved and wanted her and had been wondering all these years whether she was alive or dead?  But no...it was more likely that some teenage girl had gotten knocked up and didn't know what to do, so she left her on the steps of that hospital.  It happened all the time.  At least they hadn't thrown her in a trash can somewhere and waited for her to stop crying.

Mary Beth sank down to her knees in the sand and the tiny grains of sand made her legs itch as they worked their way through the thin material of her hose.  Tears spilled down her cheeks for the first time since the day they'd died.  It had taken everything in her to control her emotions for this long, and now they were pouring out in a deluge of pain.

Somewhere in the back of her mind something whispered to her to take control, but she couldn't seem to make herself listen.  Odd things had been happening all her life when she lost control, and lately it was only getting worse.  It had only started with the little girl being swept into the pool by the wave of water.  When she was thirteen they had been on vacation in Pensacola, Florida.  Her parents had been distracted by their friends, and she had been spending a lot of time with a boy named Jim she'd met on the beach from Georgia.  She loved the way he spoke with a thick southern drawl, and it made her heart skip a beat when he told her she was pretty.  One day they snuck off together and were lying in the sea oats that grew on the dunes, looking up at the clouds that were floating by and pretending they were everything from puppies to stereos.

She was explaining to him that a cloud could too look like an ice cream cone, and it wasn't that she was just hungry and trying to convince him to buy her a treat, when he leaned over and kissed her swiftly.  His tongue had slipped past her lip before she even knew what was happening, and she was so shocked and surprised that all she could do was lay there and try to pretend she knew what she was doing.  Her palms were sweaty, and she was shaking all over by the time that he heard the shouts from the beach and lifted his head.   He was staring out over the water.

It had taken Mary Beth a moment to sit up and realize what was going on.  Out of nowhere the ocean had gone from calm rolling waves to giant crashing crests that threatened to knock anyone in the surf from their feet.  Mother's were scrambling around gathering up the little children who had been playing in the sand near the water.  It calmed again as quickly as it had come.  The news reports that night suggested that there might have been some earthquakes far off shore that had gone unnoticed by even the seismologists who watched for them so closely.

They left the next day because her father got a call from work, and she never saw Jim again.  She had an idea that day that she might have been the cause.  The freak occurrences hadn't always been nearly as dramatic.  Sometimes it was as simple as a glass of water on the table shattering when she was angry with her parents.  Her mother had been convinced that the cold water must have shattered the glass.  The glass had been a little warm, but Mary Beth always wondered.

Maybe her real parents could have explained all this to her.  Maybe they had been having strange things happen to them their entire lives too.  Maybe they knew a way to stop it so that she didn't have to fear losing her temper all the time!  But the chances of ever finding these people who left her to freeze on the steps of a hospital twenty-three years ago wasn't even worth considering.  They had abandoned her and now she was completely on her own.

Her body trembled and was so taut that she could barely take a breath.  When she tried to swallow her throat was so tight that she felt as if she would choke on her own saliva.  Mary Beth felt more than saw the waves of water rising up above her.  They beat against the shore of the man-made beach as if coming out of a swelling ocean instead of a small, mountain lake.

Before she knew what had happened she felt the waves cover her up, drenching her from head to toe, and pulling her from where she was kneeling into the warm, murky waters of the lake.  She fought.  Her breath came in quick gasps, stolen whenever she could surface for a moment.  The undertow which should never have existed so far from any ocean pulled at her as she reached skyward.  It was as if she could make her arms longer, almost long enough to reach the precious air.  Her lungs burned, and she gasped for breath only to fill her lungs with dark water.

 Sometime later Mary Beth heard a flowing, high-pitched melody in the distance.  It was like the voice of one of the sopranos that she'd heard so often singing in the operas that her mother had liked to take her to.  But this couldn't be an opera.  She hated the opera, and her mother was dead, so she would never be forced to sit through one again.  The sound of the voice seemed to be calling to her, pulling her further and further from the soft, liquid darkness that enveloped her. 

 When she opened her eyes the world was covered in a thin haze, and she was utterly confused.  Everything looked just a bit off kilter.  Even her body felt different.  When she looked down it seemed as if her arms were covered in thick, blue leather.  She flexed her hand in front of her face and felt a wave of shock roll through her.  It wasn't her hand.  It looked more like the talons of some great bird, but between the clawed toes was webbing.  The skin that covered them was a deep shade of aquamarine that sparkled iridescent in the early morning light. 

 Mary Beth closed her eyes pressing them tightly shut before pushing herself up to her knees and opening them again to peer down at her reflection in the lake.  What she saw before her eyes sent relief flooding through her.  It was her own face, and when she looked down at her hands, they were only hands.  It wasn't until she stood up and saw the reflection of her naked body in the water that, she felt the panic rise in her chest.

* * *

 Alice sat on the edge of Mary Beth's bed stroking the hair out of her face.  "What do you mean you were naked?  Where were your clothes?  They can't just have disappeared." 

 "That's just it.  That's the awful thing.  I don't know.  I don't know where my clothes went.  I was just standing on the edge of the lake and then it was like I passed out and was dreaming and then I was naked on the beach, and it was morning."

 Alice suddenly tensed all over.  Mary Beth's eyes were closed but she could tell it by the way that she had gone from her fidgeting constant movement to complete and utter stillness.  When Mary Beth looked up at her, her best friend's eyes were wide.  "What is it?"

 "Nothing happened while you were out?  I mean...I mean you weren't hurt or anything when you woke up?  No one had done anything to you?" 

 It took her a moment to figure out what Alice was talking about.  "Oh...no I wasn't hurting or bleeding or anything.  I was just nude."

 Alice leaned down and kissed her cheek.  "Well thank the goddess for that." 

 Mary Beth sat up and smiled at her.  Alice was a witch.  Not like a cauldron toting, broomstick riding, wart-infested witch.  She believed in a mother goddess who watched over the world and countless other spirits who existed on some sort of higher plane.  Mary Beth had thought she had gone nuts in high school when she started talking about it, but it seemed to fit her personality well, and it certainly made her happy.  Before she had decided she was a witch, she'd claimed to be an atheist like Mary Beth, but she always seemed lost whenever they talked about it.  Not being able to believe in anything had really made her feel like there wasn't any point in existing.  Mary Beth didn't feel that way.  At least most of the time...

* * *

Two weeks had passed now since the incident by the lake.  Mary Beth and Alice were sitting in the local bookstore where they always had coffee on Saturday mornings.  The scent of the freshly ground beans was always enough to lull Mary Beth into a state of relaxation.  Alice was leafing through a book from the stack of occult "reference" books that she had compiled from the shelves.  Alice paused for a moment and then looked up at her and spoke with complete candor, "Maybe you're not human." 

Mary Beth choked on the coffee she was drinking and Alice smacked her on the back a couple of times to try to help, but that only irritated her all the more.  "What the hell are you talking about?"  When she looked around everyone seemed to be staring at her.  "Of course, I'm human.  Don't be stupid!"

"Well just think about it.  I mean you just found out you were adopted.  How can you really be sure?"  There was a touch of excitement in Alice's voice.

"For God's sake, Alice!"  How could she talk about it so casually?  She might feel differently if it had been her whole world that had been set reeling.  She just didn't get it. 

"You could be an alien with some mental powers that we lowly humans don't have.  Way too much weird stuff happens to you." 

 "Will you hush!  Everyone is going to think that you are completely nuts."  Everyone in the place seemed to be staring straight at them.

 Alice pouted a little and then picked up another book to flip through.  Mary Beth thought that she was through but then she suddenly burst out, "You could be a vampire!  Of course, I've known you most of my life and I've never seen you drink blood."

 "Alice!"  She looked up and noticed that a red haired man at a table across from them was looking her way and when they made eye contact he smiled at her.  She smiled back quickly and averted her eyes.

 "Or a dragon."

 Mary Beth picked up her purse and mumbled something about needing to pee before heading to the back of the store.  She paused in the romance novel section and bit back the tears that stung her eyes.  She had found out something that completely changed everything she had ever thought about her life and Alice was turning it into one of her little psychotic episodes! 

 Someone came up beside her and started looking at the same section.  When she glanced up she saw that it was the man with red hair from the café.  He smiled at her again and said hi.  She nodded and smiled back and glanced at the shelves of romance novels and back to him.  He picked up a book.  "Ah found it."  Then he looked down at his hand and saw the title of the book.  "Red Hot Nannies in Love."  He looked a little horrified and dropped the book like it was covered in fire ants.

 Mary Beth couldn't help but laughing.  "Okay this didn't go as I had planned."  He smiled at her and offered her a hand.  "My name is Kaleb Fuego."   She shook his hand, and looked him over.  He was nicely dressed in a pair of black Dockers and a button-down burgundy shirt that set off the amber of his eyes nicely. 

"I'm Mary Beth Clinker, pleased to meet you."

"I've seen you here lots of times with your friend."

Mary Beth never remembered seeing him before today, but she didn't want to hurt his feelings. "Yeah I think I remember seeing you a few times too."  She suddenly remembered that she had only told Alice she was going to the restroom.  "Well, maybe I will see you around."

He smiled at her, "I hope so."

* * *

Mary Beth continued to see this man, Kaleb, every Saturday for the next couple of weeks.  They somehow seemed to arrive at the bookstore at roughly the same time.  He always said hello to her, and sometimes after Alice had left, they would sit and talk about the books that they were reading. 

One morning Kaleb leaned across the table.  "I was wondering if you might like to have dinner some time?"

 Mary Beth hesitated for a moment.  It had been months since she had been out on a date.  She felt her cheeks flush and she nodded.  "I think that would be lovely."

* * *

 The evening of their third date had been wonderful.  Mary Beth had spent most of the day dressing and fixing herself up for the date.  Her blue-green eyes were shadowed and lined so that they stood out starkly against her pale skin and dark hair.  She didn't normally worry with make up.  It only got in the way and made her feel like she needed to wash her face with some nice, cool water.  Clothes on the other hand were always very important to her.  She was wearing a little, blue satin slip dress with thigh-highs and a very sexy merry-widow on underneath just in case. 

Her just in case had paid off this evening, and she thanked herself as he slid the key into the lock of his front door.  She had never seen his home before, and the sheer enormity of it impressed her.  He worked as an accountant in a firm downtown, and he must have been doing very well for himself to be able to have such a nice home.

The living room, which they stepped into, had high vaulted ceilings and the walls were lined with black wrought iron sconces with a candle in each of them.  There was a round fireplace in the center of the room that was open all the way around so that no matter where you sat in the room you could look into the flames.  The only furniture was a big comfortable looking sofa and a few overstuffed chairs that had a small table between them.  The one thing that seemed slightly out of place was the enormous aquarium against the far wall filled with delicate-looking, tropical fish.

Kaleb locked the door behind them and started toward the fireplace.  "I'll make us a fire and then those drinks I promised you."  It struck Mary Beth as odd that he would want a fire in the middle of summer, but it was a little cool in the room, and it sounded very romantic.  She smiled and settled down on the couch.  It seemed like it took him only seconds to get the fire started, and he was soon handing her a glass of warm brandy, which he had gotten from the kitchen.  She took a sip, feeling it burn pleasantly all the way down and leaned back against the couch.  He slipped an arm around her shoulders and smiled down at her.

"I have really enjoyed spending time with you these last couple of weeks.  I hope that you have too?"
           

"Very much."  She moved closer to him and felt her pulse pounding in her stomach as she laid a gentle kiss against his lips, testing the water.  He responded by slipping a hand behind the nape of her neck and pulling her closer.  Her whole body felt like it was on fire, as she responded to his kiss.  The glass of brandy slipped from her fingers splashing amber colored liquid all over the carpet, but neither of them noticed.  Kaleb slid his other hand up her leg just above the hem of her dress, and Mary Beth gasped in surprise and then deepened the kiss all the more.

She was the first one to notice it.  The water in the aquarium had begun to twist and spin like a whirlpool with such force that a crack had developed in the glass.  Her fingers gripped his shoulders tightly.  "Kaleb!"  His eyes came up just in time to see the aquarium shatter sending sparkling pieces of glass and tiny fish spilling all over the carpet. 

She couldn't believe what she had done.  These things always happened at the worst times.  She didn't want to try to explain this.  She just bolted leaving the multicolored fish flopping desperately on the soaking carpet.  "Mary Beth, wait!"

"I can't.  I have to go."  She had reached the door when all around her the candles in the sconces along the walls started bursting into flame one after another.

"Mary Beth, please stop!"

She turned around slowly and what she saw stopped her breath in her throat.  Something enormous stood before her.  It had red shining scales and looked like a monster from a fairy tale.  She gripped the doorknob behind her and tried to make it work, but the door was locked and she couldn't seem to figure out how to turn the bolt. 

 Mary Beth heard Kaleb's voice echoing inside her own head.  "Mary Beth, you can't leave here yet."  The doorknob started to feel more and more hot beneath her hand until she had to let it go or it would blister her skin.

"What the hell is going on here?" she whispered.

 "I'm sorry, Mary Beth.  The truth I didn't just happen to meet you at the bookstore. We've been watching you for a long time.  You were stolen at birth from your parents, and we didn't find out what had happened to you until you had already been adopted.  By then it was too late.  Too many questions would have been asked if your parents had come forward to claim you."  As his voice sounded in her head, the great lizard moved slowly toward her.  Her brain couldn't quite process what she was seeing.  A dragon! A great big, freaking dragon!  "We knew that we had to contact you after what happened that night at the lake.  You needed help to understand what was happening to you."

 "I don't know what you're talking about.  Oh God, I'm losing my mind.  None of this is real at all."  She fell back against the door and sunk to the floor with her hands to her face.

 Mary Beth felt something touch her shoulder, and she scrambled back further into the corner by the doorway.  When she opened her eyes, what she saw was only Kaleb not some giant beast.  He was completely naked and crouched on the floor close to her.  "You're not losing your mind, Mary Beth.  You're a dragon."