By Kendra Fortmeyer
The trouble was that the shark had been born a human. Certain things were very difficult. The dryness of the air, for one. The stillness of food. As a baby, the shark-child cried constantly and without sound, a great white yawn of woe. It wanted to bite everything but had no teeth.
“She’s so sleepy,” her proud mother said.
“A born napper,” her father said.
The shark-child, of course, did not sleep. The shark-child lay awake in her crib in the silent house, moving her feet ceaselessly beneath the blankets.
The child grew up and forgot she was a shark. Her parents called her Anna. She did well in things like dodgeball and running away. She was running away constantly. Anna’s parents laughed. They bought a toddler leash. She outgrew the toddler leash. She disappeared for hours at a time in grocery stores, in parks. But she always circled back.
When Anna was six she got a younger brother named Lyle. Lyle was a normal child. Which is to say: he was not a shark. He was a human baby with Down’s Syndrome. The entire family loved him to pieces. At night, lying on the couch, their mother would find the two of them, Anna and Lyle, each holding the other’s arm gently in their mouths, and smiling.
After Lyle, Anna did not tire of running away. But she began to bring back things for him: buttons and sticks and the tail of a baby squirrel.
Their parents were very good at loving. They loved and loved and loved.
“We love you,” they told Anna when she didn’t make the volleyball team.
“We love you!” they told Lyle when he sang them songs at dinner.
“We love you,” they told Anna when she was 25 and had just come home again for the 4,815th time, “but maybe it’s time for you to strike out on your own.”
It was the first time Anna had heard love come with a but.
It was a difficult world for a young shark. Several career paths were obvious: cards, for one. Loans. Swim instructor. But Anna’s path had never been a straight one. She applied for everything she knew nothing about. She fell in love with all of the wrong men. She rubbed up against her lovers like she was sandpaper, and they came away from her bleeding and frightened and smooth.
Anna was working as a welder when she met Luis. Luis was a giant man who wore button-down shirts with the top buttons missing, a dark cloud of hair constantly threatening to spill free. He looked like someone who had been a refrigerator in a past life. Instead, he had been a bear.
From 1950 to 1961, Luis had lived in the remote Idahoan wilderness as an 800-pound grizzly. He had been female as a bear, which lead to many confusing encounters in his young human life. He had been shot once in a bar, when a drunk man took a swing at a shrimpy punk kid and a protective instinct that Luis could not understand had reared up in him, roaring. He walked now with a limp.
It was the limp that attracted Anna to Luis. Watching him walk, she felt a sweet ache in her molars.
He approached her after a few months. It had taken him a while to work up the nerve.
“Maurice says you’re pretty good at double-U butt welds,” he said.
It was not a good first line and, saying it, he knew it was a mistake. But the shark girl straightened and smiled.
“I do what I can,” she said. Which was modest. She was exceedingly great at double-U butt welds. But this generosity gave him courage.
“I feel like I know you from somewhere,” he said, tentatively.
She laughed. “We’ve been working together for the last three months,” she said.
He rubbed the back of his neck with a massive hand.
“But before that,” he said. “You seem really familiar somehow.”
Anna tilted her head to the side, scrutinizing him with a flat yellow gaze.
“Yes,” she said. “You too.”
Her torch was beginning to glow hot and bright.
“Do you—want to go out sometime?” Luis asked. “Grab a beer?”
Anna smiled up at him with all of her teeth. Every tooth was saying, yes, you, I choose you.
The bear was the first man Anna stayed with for more than a week. Nothing she did could make him go. When she bit, he bit back. The two of them had enormous, roaring, bloody tussles. Her friends said, you’re crazy. They said, this is a mistake. They said, how can you love a man who’s always at your throat. She’d corrected, we’re always at each other’s throats, and when they stared at her, she said, also the sex is really great. And they said, okay, we guess. Staring at the happiness glowing from her face. Wondering what it was they were missing.
They moved in together in autumn. Luis’ appetite was enormous—for Anna, for food, for life. He repainted her stoop, stacked firewood, talked about putting in a fence. He came home one day with a length of fabric he’d found by a Dumpster. He had plans: washing, ironing, cutting into curtains. “I can do the hemming,” he said, misreading the look on her face. “I taught myself to sew when I was a teenager.”
“Okay,” she said, flatly. That night, she lay apart from him in bed, feeling the tension that ran through her body every time she thought the word curtains. It was fierce and anxious and almost sexual. Curtains. Release. Curtains. Release. Curtains.
He woke to find her packing bags.
“Where are we going?” he asked. In a voice that knew the answer. There was a ring hidden in the underwear drawer. There were champagne flutes coming in from Amazon, with free shipping.
She crammed a sweater into the bag. She crammed an unmatched sock.
The man said from the dark, “But why?”
His voice was raw enough that something in her flitted back, circled with interest. But then he said, “Please stay,” and everything in her felt like drowning.
Anna lay in the bathtub at her parents’ house all that winter, biting everything in reach with her cute pebble teeth. The whole world seemed too dry and too bright.
“Keep your head up,” her friends said.
“Just keep swimming,” they said. “There are plenty more fish in the sea,” they said.
They did not know that Anna was a shark. Anna did not know, either. Sharks are not renowned for self-awareness.
Lyle came to visit her in the bathtub and she cried. Because she was crying, Lyle cried. She fell asleep and woke to find him poised delicately beside her with a toothpick, picking bits of things from between her teeth.
Luis found her again when she was working as a school counselor. He came to see her in the teachers’ lounge. He leaned on the vending machine. They were similar in shape.
She asked about his job. He asked about hers. That morning, a little girl had come in to talk about her parents’ divorce, and Anna had suggested they make voodoo dolls. The little girl had gone to the principal, crying.
She said, “It’s good.”
“I miss you,” he said.
The shark-girl said nothing, and then said, “I miss you too.”
Luis was thinner, bright-eyed. There was a new hardness to his edges. He said, “What’s keeping you?”
She had new friends now. She had taken up jogging. While they jogged around the park in their bright jog tops her new friends gave her advice about men. She let them think Luis had done the leaving. They ran in the same path every day and said men and said take his number out of your phone and said he never deserved you. She went to the dentist once a week and had them check for cavities. It wouldn’t be long now.
Anna said, “You know I’m not that kind of woman.”
He said, “What kind?”
She said, “The right kind.” And then, “The keeping kind.”
They looked at her hands, spread on the table. They seemed like hands that did not belong to a complete fuck-up. They did not seem relevant to the situation.
But the bear took them in his own and placed her knuckle in his living mouth: not to bite, but gently. She felt his tongue against her skin: a small, warm resting place.
The shark-woman gnashed her tiny teeth, thought no. Thought of the deathless march ahead of her: the endless succession of lovers, the jog tops, the bars. How sure a thing it seemed to run, smooth and uncomplicated. How cold.
The bear-man held her in his eyes and waited while Anna’s thoughts circled around and around the rest of her life. Waited until, terrified, she opened wide her human arms and sank.
Originally published by Smoking Glue Gun.