Vic was going to do it this time. He really was.
He had first seen the selkies four months ago, staggering home from the pub, whisky-soaked clouds of his breath hanging in the frigid air. He’d stumbled down to the beach for a piss, kicking cold sand up into his shoes as he fumbled for his zipper. Then he’d heard them laugh.
For a moment he’d just stood there, mouth hung open, gawking like an idiot as three women, bare as the day they were born, frolicked on the sand. They were beautiful, in the flickering snatches of streetlight that made it that far down the beach, shrieking with laughter as they splashed in the surf and rolled together like the box of fat Labrador puppies a ten-year-old Vic had once stared longingly at through the pet shop window. One turned, and for a moment, he thought she had seen him, breath catching in his throat – either fear, or excitement – as he waited for her to scream. Then a car turned onto the road behind him, headlights spilling orange across the darkness. The women startled, all three of them lunging for something hidden in the sand, pulling the dark shadow of it over their pale limbs and a disappearing into the sea.
When they hit the waves, they weren’t women anymore.
He’d woken the next morning with sand in his socks, a pounding head, a mouth that tasted like arse, and the firm conviction that he’d imagined the whole thing. But, even so, he found his feet leading him down the roads that passed the beach when he walked home at night. And during the day, his eyes drifted towards the ocean.
It had taken a month before he saw them again. Sober this time, or at least, sober enough that he didn’t immediately shake it off as a booze-fuelled hallucination the next day. He didn’t spot them immediately – there was no loud laughter and wild shrieks to grab his attention, only pale skin hidden beneath a moonless sky. The three were cuddled up together in the shore, the tallest – the one who Vic was so sure had seen him last time – threw her head back as silver sea foam crested over her body, arms stretching over her head like she was laying in comfortable sheets, instead of salt and sand.
He had stood there, half hidden behind the sea-wall, and watched all three of them until the sun rose. As soon as the first greys of morning seeped into night the three slipped their furs on, disappeared into the water, and were gone.
A second sighting, on the same stretch of beach, at the same time. Twice wasn’t enough to be a pattern. But it was certainly enough for a hypothesis.
Finally, the new moon came and, like he had hoped they would, so did the selkie.
He made sure to get to beach before sunset that time. And, despite the cold wind rushing in from the sea like his father’s fist, he stayed. The clock ticked down, darkness settling heavy around him, the lights from the road barely making it across ghostly sand and leaving the ocean a thick puddle of ink. Dark enough that he didn’t see them arrive. Between blinks, they were suddenly there, the tallest at the front of the pack, fur slipping from her shoulders to puddle at her feet as she stepped out of the ocean. Her sisters – for that is how he had chosen to think of them – followed after.
He watched all night, as the three of them played across the beach, furs left discarded behind them, as they chased each other and tussled on the sand. Finally, when they had worn themselves out, the three returned to their coats, curling up in the pile and falling asleep. He almost went then. But it was too risky. He wasn’t as young as he’d once been, and they would certainly wake and slip back into their skin before he got over the wall. Besides, he had to prepare.
He cleaned out the second bedroom in his flat. He didn’t think it would see much use, but it might be helpful for the first few days. Just until she acclimatised. He also bought a metal trunk with a very sturdy lock.
He was ready. It was another new moon, and he could almost feel the warm fur beneath his fingers.
Vic was going to do it this time. He really was.
He lingered behind the wall, waiting as the women slipped out of the sea and out of their skins. It didn’t take long before they were roughhousing and playing again. So caught up in their game, and each other, that they didn’t notice as they strayed further and further away from their furs.
The shortest lunged, grabbing the tallest around the waist and toppling all three of them over with startled shrieks. Vic threw himself over the wall and took off running. One of the women saw him, and cried out, but they were all tangled together, and too far away, and Vic was halfway there before any of them managed to stagger to their feet.
He dropped to his knees beside the pile of dark furs, the tallest had left the sea first, which meant her fur should be… there.
His hand clutched fur and he let out a triumphant yell, pulling it free. It felt… different than he had thought it would, bristly on one side and strangely slick on the other, with a sharp scent of iron. There was a scuff of sand behind him, and he stood, turning to greet his new bride.
She looked back at him, eyes dark and surprisingly sharp.
Vic took a step forward and doubled over, pain wracking through him. He would have dropped the coat, but agony had turned his fist into a vice, and something inside it popped, red wetness spilling out across his closed grip. He would have screamed, if his tongue wasn’t melting. If his bones weren’t burning. If he wasn’t choking on his own teeth as something sharp burst through his gums and tore them free.
“Finally,” the short one said, coming closer. “I thought he was never going to take the bait.”
Prone on the ground, Vic cracked one eye open, barely able to move through the waves of fire that still rolled through him. “What –” he tried, but all that came out was a wheezing bark.
The tall one laughed. He could see her surprisingly well, the freckles on her thighs, that had been hidden in the darkness before, the cruel sharpness of her fingernails. But the warmth of the streetlights had faded, stripped away into stark monochromes. Vic let out another wheezing groan, his whiskers quivering, he flopped in the sand, coarse and painful against his fur and rolled, unable to get to feet that he no longer had.
There was a sharp cracking from in front of him and Vic looked impossibly up as the selkie woman shifted and twisted, her hair shrinking into her skull, her limbs turning from lithe to stocky. Scruff bloomed along her jaw, lips thinning, hair greying her nose flattening and twisting where it had broken when Vic was a teen and never set right. And then he was looking up at a mirror image of himself, still naked, and staring down with teeth bared in its familiar echo of his father’s fury. She’d even got the scar on his knee right, and the one curl of hair that always flicked up behind his ear. She grinned viciously down at him.
“You fucking bitch,” Vic attempted to snarl, he lunged for her but the short one was suddenly there, kicking him back.
“I don’t know why you’re offended,” she said. Her foot was still on him, pressing down against his neck and Vic twisted his useless, ungainly body to try and break free. “You don’t recognise bait when you see it? All you had to do was not be the literal worst and this wouldn’t have happened.”
Vic barked angrily at her and the tall one – the one wearing his face – stepped forward, running her fingers through the short one’s dark tangled hair.
“Now love,” she draped her – his – naked body against the shorter woman’s back and Vic felt a stab of jealous fury. That was his body. It should be his hands touching soft skin. That’s what all the stories said. “I’m sure he’s learnt his lesson. Or he will, anyway.”
“Does it really matter, now?” The third woman asked, and Vic had almost forgotten about her but as she came forward she was carrying Vic’s clothes – how had she? – she held them out towards the tall one and Vic let out another outraged bark that all three of them ignored as the woman slipped into his clothes. She paused, slipping her hand into his pocket and pulling out a wallet. Vic had never known his face could look so cruel.
“Victor Marsh,” she luxuriated over the name, rolling it between her teeth. And then she smiled. “Not anymore.”