On my fourteenth birthday I was led down into the school basement, down to where the machine nested. As soon as I sat in front of it, its snake-like arm shot out and bit into my hand, drawing blood for its analysis.
Usually, once complete, it would print out a detailed report on your power, as well as recommended jobs, clubs to join with similar children, training routines, etc.
All I got was a simple, four-word note. I don’t think it would have qualified as a fortune cookie, even. Perhaps only as allergy advice.
Don’t touch the water.
The excitement of the last few years, of waiting to find out my future, evaporated like morning dew. Don’t touch the water.
”But I’ve touched water plenty,” I said to the counsellor — a grey haired school teacher who’d escorted me to the machine. She looked as perplexed as I was disappointed.
”Yes, well, that was before. The machine has activated your power now. It would have activated itself naturally sooner or later, but the machine stimulated it.”
”So… My power is that I can’t touch water?”
She read the note again. Clicked her tongue. ”That’s what it says.”
I hadn’t been expecting much of a power. Usually, people just get something boring, so why would I be any different? I’d known people who could warm their hands up without needing gloves, or who are pretty good at breathing at high altitudes. My best friend at school (a few months older than me) could spit out a stream of warm black tea as long as he’d drunk enough water — although not many people wanted to drink it. Another kid at school left a slimy trail behind wherever her skin touched, like a snail or slug. Which sounds pretty lame until you saw her slurping up the side of a building — then you didn’t care how gross it was, you still wished that was you.
My counsellor took me to the nurse where she tested a drop of water on my index finger.
”We need to know what it means, exactly,” said the nurse. “Imagine he can’t go out in the rain. Or can’t swim. Or can’t drink water! Poor child.”
Nothing seemed to happen to my finger, so the nurse let a few more drops fall onto me. Where the drops hit, my finger began to grow. The skin became swollen, like a balloon the size of a table tennis ball.
”Oh dear,” said the nurse.
Turned out that I could at least drink water, as long as it didn’t hit my lips. But if my skin were to come into contact with liquid, then it would swell up horribly.
Don’t touch the water.
I told my parents that night. They pretended it was fine. They pretended they hadn’t been waiting, just as excitedly as I had, for all these years.
“Powers are overrated,” said my dad, chewing on a piece of steak. “Only one in every few million are useful to society.”
”The world would be better off if no one had powers,” said Mom.
”That’s easy for you two to say,” I said, tears welling. I blinked them back so my face didn’t bloat.
Mom worked on a wind farm. She could breathe out gusts strong enough to rotate an acre of wind turbines. Dad was a walker: he walked through our coastal town day after day, absorbing carbon emissions from the air. It was a passive ability and the government paid him to just be out there, walking.
I think they’d been hoping for something similar for me. A useful ability. Something that could help the world. And sometimes abilities are like that, hereditary. But not mine.
“Your mother’s right,” said my father. “They just cause jealousy and conflict.”
”You’re saving the planet!” I said. “How can that be bad?”
He had no answer to that.
“And me? I can’t even go outside on a rainy day anymore. What kind of life is that?“
My relationship with my parents was never the same after that day. Something had fallen between us, like a block of ice, and whenever we spoke or interacted it was through the block of ice. Our words always turned cold.
I moved out when I turned eighteen and into a one bed flat inland, away from their home by the coast. Away from all that water. Being around my parents only made me ashamed of what I had. And for them, whenever we talked, I could tell they were ashamed of me too. They’d both taken on more work since my ability — or curse — had manifested. Both preferring to be out of the house as much as possible, rather than be near the chill of ice than ran between us.
Then, when i was nineteen, my mother died.
I hadn’t visited in six months. I’d barely left my apartment in that time — first to avoid rain, then later to avoid everything. Then one afternoon my father called to tell me Mom had died at work. She’d been straining too hard during a power outage, to try to make sure people had enough heat in their homes. Her heart had given up.
After the funeral, I stayed with my father for a few days. And whatever depression I’d already been in engulfed me completely. A fuller, deeper shame of myself, of who I was. Of holding that anger against my mother for five years. Of barely speaking to her since I left.
Her heart had given up. Those words haunted me.
I was angry at everyone’s powers, too. My mother, because of her power, had worked herself to death.
The world truly would be better if we were all normal.
My father and I were eating toast in our usual miserable silence, when the message came over the television. An emergency broadcast.
A tsunami warning.
It would be a big one, apparently. Big enough to mostly destroy the little town I’d grown up in. And if we didn’t leave now it would destroy us both, too.
”Come on,” I said. “We need to evacuate.”
My father looked at me. Opened his mouth but said nothing. Then he went back to his toast.
”We’ve got to go,” I insisted.
“To where?” he said. ”I don’t have her anymore. I don’t have you. If I lose this house, I have nothing left.”
I yelled at him, told him how stubborn and stupid he was being. But he wouldn’t budge. I grabbed a coat and left him at the kitchen table.
”She loved you more than the world,” he said, as I opened the front door.
I swallowed back my guilt as I stepped out and closed the door.
The street brimmed with people and cars. But the cars were moving at a crawl. We had twenty minutes perhaps, before the wall of water hit.
How many here were going to die? Most of them, I thought. My best bet was to cycle, to weave through the people and cars.
But instead I looked out towards the ocean. Imagined the wall of black water heading inexorably towards us, somewhere out there. I imagined it falling on the town like a fist. On my mother’s fresh grave. On my father, alone at the table. On all these people stuck in traffic.
I thought of the day I’d gotten my ability. Of being in the nurse’s office. Of all the drips of water had left me painfully swollen.
I left my father’s house and headed towards the beach.
I hadn’t been to a beach since I was fourteen, afraid of the waves. I had locked myself away from water and from most of the world since my gift arrived. Now I stepped onto the sand, taking off my shoes and socks, feeling the warmth between my toes.
Memories flooded back, of being here with my parents as a child. Playing soccer with Dad, diving in the waves, digging a hole to bury my mother up to her neck.
For the first time since her death I let myself cry. I felt my skin beneath my eyes swell up as the tears hit.
”I love you,” I said to the air, to the beach, to nothing, as I walked towards the ocean.
Don’t touch the water.
I stepped into the sea.
The cold water rushed against my legs. Pain shot through me as my feet and ankles absorbed the water.
I had no idea if this would kill me or if it would do anything good at all. But I waded deeper, as my body absorbed more and more of the salty water. Soon I was twice my size and width. Then four times. Then ten times. And still I grew. Wider and taller, as if I was drinking up the shore itself.
The pain tore at me as if I was ripping myself in half, as if my skeleton was tearing itself free of its skin.
I absorbed enough water to be a hundred, then maybe a thousand times my size. I was a sponge that walled off the ocean to the beach, and still I grew and rose into the air.
By the time the great wave came thundering I was unable to move or think or do anything but exist as a kind of organic wall.
But I was every bit as big as the tsunami.
It collapsed into me, buffeting me back against the low rocks of the cliff, but unable to get through me. Its roar was the angry frustrated scream that had been building up inside of me for the last few years. It was the sound of my sorrow at the loss of my mother. It was all the pain I’d been holding.
Finally, the wave withdrew. When it struck again it was with far less force.
I lay on the beach for many weeks afterwards, slowly shrinking as the water inside of me evaporated.
Every day people from my town would visit and lay gifts by my swollen head. I was still unable to talk, but I could think a little. And I thought how lucky I was. Had always been.
And every day my father came and sat by me. He’d tell me how proud he was of me. How proud they’d both been of me, even before my powers. That they’d never stopped being proud. They were just sorry I was suffering and that they didn’t know how to help.
He told me stories I’d forgotten from when I was a child. Of my mother’s smile when I’d been born. As full as the moon.
”She knew you loved her very much,” he said. “Even at the end.”
I think I must have known that already but hearing it from my father melted the sheet of ice I’d been carrying around with me for the last five years.
I promised myself that I’d waste no more of my life on bitterness. You never know how long you have left to treasure the things that matter. Now I would treasure everything important to me as fiercely as a dragon.