We swim and we swim and we swim. We swarm like underwater bees, and fish quiver as we pass. The taste of saltwater in our mouths, red with the blood of what we eat.
You ask us, “Does it hurt?” Of course it hurts. It hurts like everything beautiful hurts. It hurts like death.
Mom knew some of the valeens when she was a little girl, before they turned. I’ve asked her loads of times if there were any signs when they were growing up, and she says no. I wonder sometimes if the other girls in my class could turn into valeens when they get older. I wonder about Emily Cleary, whose blond hair sways back and forth in front of me every day during math. I wonder if she’s a valeen and I don’t know it. But I don’t ask anybody about it. I just watch Emily Cleary every day and wonder what she would look like with claws.
Dad is a morning person, but I’m not. When we push the boat off the shore, I’m still feeling a little fuzzy and dazed, and he tells me to pay attention. He puts a frayed cap on my head and tells me it’s for the sun.
“You think we’ll get a good look at ‘em first?” I ask, because I’ve always wanted to see one.
“The second you start to look at ‘em, you’re dead. Those valeens will eat you so fast, you won’t even be able to scream.”
I don’t ask any more questions. I just push the brim of the hat down close to my eyes and watch the sunrise over the water.
Dad has set up traps all up and down the river. They’re fish carcasses, but they’ve got to be male, and Dad rubs his armpits on each of them before he sticks them to the poles jutting out of the water. He says pheromones are what the valeens are after.
“The smell of a man aroused,” he says. “They go hog wild, I tell you that.”
I don’t know why Dad’s armpits would smell like he’s aroused. I wonder if he feels aroused when he thinks of the valeens, like I do. Sometimes at night I have dreams that I’m in the water and the valeens are surrounding me, pulling me underneath. I wake up sweating. The only other person who does that to me is Emily Cleary.
We motor down the river and the sun starts to rise higher so it’s not as dark as it was when we began. Dad has a special hook he made himself for catching them, which is really four hooks he’s combined in the center so a hook sticks out at every angle. You catch ‘em, then you shoot ‘em. We reach a place deep in the water where it’s still and he gives me a look to stop the motor. He looks at me, and I nod. Now is just the wait.
A boy in my school, Jimmy Wu, brought a valeen claw into class one day. Looking at it, I could hardly believe it once belonged to a girl like me. The fingers were long and pointy, with sharp fingernails that bent inwards. He said he bought it in a shop outside of town, a roadside market that tourists pass through. He said it only cost him five dollars, which Bryce Richards said meant it was fake. He said I could hold it, but I said no.
I told Emily Cleary about it afterwards and she said it was horrible, us gawking like that at this poor girl’s hand. I wondered if that was because she was a valeen too but didn’t want me to know about it. She teared up, so I had to change the subject. I never wanted to make her sad.
In the dark we almost look like your old girlfriends, your mothers. In the dark we look like home.
The dance we do for the men and their hooks, we practice it over and over. We snap and snatch, we bite and growl. We open our mouths the size of the waves, and we eat those who would do us harm.
Dad looks at me after a little bit and scoffs.
“I knew you were gonna be too scared.”
I shake my head.
“I’m not scared. I promise.”
He looks out at the water, doesn’t make eye contact.
“We have to kill ‘em,” he says. “They’re going to kill us if we don’t. Those boys last homecoming, they thought they could make friends with them. But you can’t. All they do is kill.”
“I know,” I tell him, even though I’m not so sure.
I don’t think I have the guts to kill one in the end, but it’s too late to go back now. Dad hands me the shotgun he was holding and grabs another from the floor of the boat beneath him.
“You shoot it the second you see it,” he says. “You don’t even breathe.”
I start to imagine the food Mom is going to make for us when we get home. She’ll probably just make some macaroni and cheese with the orange powder, and maybe, if I catch a valeen today, she’ll let me dip it in ketchup.
I watch Dad watching the water. He looks more himself here waiting for the valeens than he ever does with Mom. There is peace in his body, a stillness I’m not used to. Until something starts to move in the water, and he turns to me and nods.
“Remember,” Dad whispers, “they are killing machines.”
I see the mess of her black hair starting to come up over the water, and I start to raise my shotgun, but Dad stops my hand and raises a finger to his lips.
“Almost,” he whispers.
Then she rises into the air, and I do the thing Dad told me not to do. I look. Her skin is translucent; you can see the bones beneath and her black eyes are wide like dinner plates, her jagged teeth opening into a smile that rises past her ears. But it turns out, it’s okay that I looked, because Dad has already fired and she’s flailing, smashing the water with her claws, getting both me and Dad wet. So I fire too, and now her blood is forming a pool around her in the water, until finally, she’s limp.
Dad looks at me.
“We can get, thirty, thirty-five hundred for this one, I think.”
“Grab her by the hair and bring her on board.”
It’s Sadie Valeen, the sister of the first girl to turn. Her body lies on the base of the boat, still, and her hair keeps touching my sneakers. Dad doesn’t look down at her once.
Dad keeps Sadie in the fridge outside over the weekend. She really looks terrible, all mangled and disfigured from the bullets. But I do think she’s pretty, even now, even with valeen teeth and claws.
Sadie, Sadie, I mouth to myself. I love you, Sadie Valeen.
Mom comes up behind me as I look. She places her arm around me and gives me a hug.
“You don’t need to be looking at that,” she says.
“Did you know her?” I ask.
“Of course,” she replies.
“Dad says she’ll be worth a lot of money at the souvenir shops. And the witchy places.”
“She better be,” Mom says. “I don’t want your father traumatizing you like that unless it’s worth it. She was a nice girl, good at sports.”
I wanted to be brave, and instead I’m just something darker than I was before.
Sadie Valeen is pale in the refrigerator light.
At school some of the other kids ask me if I caught one, and I lie and tell them no. I pretend that it was a slow day, and we didn’t see anything worth shooting at.
“Damn,” says Jimmy Wu. “Tough break.”
Emily Cleary walks over to me in the cafeteria at lunch.
“I knew you’d never do it,” she tells me.
I close my eyes, and picture Sadie in the fridge.
That night I look at my hand in the dark. The fingers scrunched, it looks kind of like a valeen claw. I hide it under the covers. I imagine myself in the fridge. Then I open my eyes and it’s still my hand.
Under the water, we sing our song of waiting.
Cover Art: Untitled, by DMT