The waves returned what they took. But not in a way one would expect.
It was roughly the size of a small child. Nobody would have been able to make head nor tail of if it were not for the dull unblinking eye on the rounded end of its body assumed to be its head. Odd tusk-like bumps crowned the head, protruding through the gauzy membrane wrapped loosely around its entire barrel-like body. In the center of the protrusions was a single unblinking eye. Along its torso were three pairs of limbs, long and boneless, tipped with flippers. The other end of the body, assumed to not be its head, ended in an amorphous mass of gelatinous tissue trailing behind it.
Perhaps it would have been brushed off as being just another bloated animal carcass, badly decomposed to pass the point of recognition, if it were not for the slight heaving of the body. It was breathing. It was alive. But just barely.
Just enough to let out a wheeze at the nudge of a wary foot.
And then came the shuddering sobs - soft but high-pitched, almost like that of a child's. Everyone backed away. Well, almost everyone. Two figures remained where they stood- a man and woman, matching rings on their fingers. To them the cries were all too familiar. The woman approached the creature. Her husband followed, a few unsteady steps behind. Almost in unison, a name fell from their lips.
She was only 9, a bright little girl with a sunny smile. She was their only child. On the 23rd of April 2010, Marie went missing. Her parents recalled her being tucked into bed. But the next morning she was gone. A few of those living closer to the shore could have sworn they'd seen the silhouette of a little child heading to the coast in the dead of the night. But they never stopped her. They just assumed someone else would. The next morning all that was left of her was a single slipper and a fading trail of footsteps in the sand that stopped where the sea met the land.
And now she was back. Their daughter was back, warped and different, but it was her. It was her and somehow, they felt this true. They tried to convince the others. They demanded that they get to take their child back home. But for all their pleading, all they got in return were concerned looks and pitying words intended to comfort.
The parents were not comforted.
How could they be? Not when their only child was in such a state!
Two young men returned with a large plastic tub of seawater. Despite the parents' apprehension, Marie was heaved into the tub. She barely fit into it. Her gelatinous tail stuck out, still trailing into the waves.
The tide was rising.
As the hours passed, the number of people there for the spectacle thinned out until all that was left were the parents, Marie, and the fishermen who had first spotted Marie. The couple were now huddled by their child, trying to soothe her with hushed tones and gentle pats. Their efforts appear to be working. Marie's sobs were now reduced to soft whimpers as she leaned into her father's embrace.
The waves lapped at the base of the plastic tub.
Tthe fishermen attempted to reason with the couple. Just for a little while, the men claimed, they needed to part with their child. It was obvious the child needed to see a doctor. But something rubbed the parents the wrong way. They had just gotten their child back. No way were they going to just hand her over to strange people who they assumed would run her through countless unpleasant tests. Nobody else believed their claims that this was their daughter returned home anyways. They were going to treat her like a mere curiosity! An animal! A thing!
On the other hand, the men had a point. Sooner or later they'd need someone to see their daughter. Something had happened to her. Something terribly wrong. And like any loving parent, the couple needed to know what it was that happened to her. And if it could be fixed. No, how it could be fixed. Very reluctantly, the parents agreed.
It was their daughter, they'll see. They'll all see.
It was getting dark and the waves were now crashing by the side of the plastic tub. Marie's head stirred, her body shifted. The tub tips onto its side and the malformed child falls out. She twisted and turned and struggled. And with every push of her boneless flippered limbs, she returned to the salty waves that had just brought her back.
The father got onto his feet. He wasn't going to let her dissappear again. Not again. Not like this. The mother followed. And then the fishermen. Into the water they all go, wading after the child bobbing into the waves. The father reached out and grasped her. The membranes that covered her slipped between his fingers. He held on. She was slipping away. The mother joined in. Against the pull of the sea, they tried to drag her back onto shore.
Step by step, inch by inch.The father had his eyes on the shore while the mother kept hers on their daughter.
They were almost there.
They were so close.
But their holds weren't tight enough and with an inhuman wail that rang clear over the sound of the sea, Marie literally tore herself out of their hands. In the shock of the moment, they all froze. Marie's body, no longer membrane bound, had dissappeared into the waves. All she left was the paper-thin sheet that had once draped over her body, now limp in her parents' hands.
Everyone was too focused on bringing her back onto the shore. They never noticed how much she wanted to return to the depths.
And just like that, the tide took her back. The father stood speechless, trying to process the events that occured, and the mother fell to her knees, eyes wide. She saw it, just as the six-limbed body tore itself out of its own skin, a split-second glimpse of the form beneath. She shook all over. Her lips formed silent words.
Months passed. Genetic results were out. The strange skin-like covering that the creature known as "Marie" left behind was found to be most likely human in origin. Further tests traced its source all the way back to a handful of unrelated families. One of them was Marie's. Maybe the parents' were right. Maybe they weren't.They hoped they weren't. Because all the mother would say about the incident was "That was not my daughter".
"It couldn't be her."