Read an excerpt:
“Finn?” Devon asked. He was still standing in the doorway, broad-shouldered and classically handsome even in washed-out cutoffs and a faded T-shirt, his brown hair slipping into his eyes. Paul’s carefully cultivated movie-star good looks were plastic and forced in comparison. Finn’s attention darted about like a minnow. Devon had to catch it again. “It’s really warm in here. Do you want me to open a window?”
Finn liked the heat. He wished he were half reptile instead of a seal. He wished he had a cold, dry part of him that he could rattle to tell the world just to go away rather than having to form words with intent. He didn’t want anything. Except maybe the food Devon had with him. The only thing Finn could stomach right now was raw fish.
He growled when he breathed out. He didn’t know how wild animals could do it on the inhale. He wasn’t feral. He’d been hand-tamed by Paul for a decade. He moved, pulling the blankets off his head, and twisted around on his stomach to look at Devon. The air was soupy and thick, but Finn’s skin was dry to the touch. It was hard to make the musky smell he wanted. He was an adult male selkie and wanted to smell like it. Male pups and juveniles didn’t smell at all while still under the protection of the alpha bull seal, so as to not offend. Finn had his ass stomped once after trespassing unknowingly into another rookery, and the adult selkie males had all been rank in their fury.
At best, Finn’s scent was tart on the tongue. It didn’t even fill up his mouth. Devon had no problem walking through it to put the sashimi down on the table next to used tissues, three glasses with various water levels, Devon’s uncharged cell, and some number puzzles. Finn enjoyed them but hadn’t had the time to do one in the past decade.
Finn studied Devon. He wasn’t glaring, but he didn’t know what he wanted from Devon, even though he knew he wanted something. Finn had loved him for so long it didn’t make any sense why Finn had ever wanted to be alone. He took Devon’s hand and sniffed his wrist. Devon didn’t smell like Finn enough. Finn licked the inside of Devon’s wrist. That helped.
“Did you want to go out for a swim before it gets dark?” Devon asked, letting Finn keep hold of his hand.
“No,” Finn said. His pelt, a detachable piece of his body that let him transform into his seal form, chittered at him. Finn had made it when he was sixteen, and had chosen a leather jacket as the representation of his pelt. Every selkie got to choose his or her own item. The plain brown leather would never go out of style. His pelt had an awareness that was separate from Finn, or maybe it was where he stored his id. It wanted to go swimming. It wanted sex with Devon, all the fish on the plate, and then to go sunning, but the sun was already starting to set. The pelt was closer to Devon than it was to Finn, but Devon could be trusted with any part of Finn. Devon picked it up and draped it over Finn’s shoulders.
“Do you want me to sleep in the house again?” Devon asked.
After three days of sulking, Finn finally felt like he was back in clean salt water, not the cesspool he’d been drowning in. “Do you want to fuck me?” Finn asked. He let go of Devon’s hand and rolled onto his side. He remembered how it felt when Devon put him up against the helm in his boathouse, licking inside him when Finn couldn’t even say asshole in reference to his own bum. Devon had made him scream the word, and Finn had done so willingly. He didn’t know why now the thought of being that exposed made him clench. He’d taken four massive steps back.
“I love you,” Devon said.
“Is that a yes?” Finn had taken Devon’s hand gently the first time, but now he snatched it back. Devon held perfectly still when Finn’s nails dug into his skin. As long as Devon didn’t move, Finn wouldn’t do any damage. He lost his battle of wills to keep himself from applying pressure. He didn’t want to hurt Devon but couldn’t stop himself. Everything inside hurt when he thought of sex. It wasn’t fair to take it out on Devon, but Finn couldn’t hold it alone anymore. He wanted to claw and bite, and Devon was the only one in the room to take it.
“I wouldn’t fuck you right now,” Devon said. “But when you want to. I’m not going to force you.”
Finn’s ears pinned back. “I didn’t say I was forced.”
“Neither did I,” Devon said gently. “Please stop squeezing my wrist so hard, Finn. It hurts.”
“Does it?” Finn asked. He knew that shouldn’t please him, but it did.
Devon didn’t fight him. His other hand came up out of reflex, but he didn’t make a fist or hold his hand up to hit Finn. “Yes, it does.”
Finn was stronger than Devon. He was much stronger than Paul. But all Paul needed to do was touch Finn, and Finn would collapse.
Devon’s breathing was getting pretty ragged. Finn was squeezing too hard. He let up slightly, enough to let the blood circulate at least. Finn didn’t want to hurt Devon any more than he had to.
Pain hurt. When Paul took him, Finn felt nothing at all but the initial discomfort of somebody forcing something up inside muscles that didn’t want to give way. The pangs of protest didn’t register as anything other than the physical distress. There was nothing he could do but take it, so he took it. He couldn’t make Paul stop. It wasn’t rape, because Paul had every right to use Finn’s body. Paul would tell him to run, and Finn would try to make it past the threshold of his closet to safety. He did it one time in four. If it was one time in five, he would have stopped running years ago and just taken it. Paul had dialed in Finn’s threshold the hard way.
“I tried not to let it hurt,” Finn said. “There were ways, on the Internet, to relax. I practiced them. I tried.” He hadn’t let go of Devon’s wrist, and he felt guilty about it. Devon had sprained his ankle before, but he’d mostly had a charmed life. He probably didn’t know what real pain felt like.
“You did your best,” Devon said carefully.
Finn didn’t think Devon would understand how it felt to be grateful for small kindnesses while he was being hurt. Paul let Finn take his pelt off. The poor little thing wouldn’t understand the violence, even if it loved hunting. This was an ugly human thing that humans did to each other.
“I shouldn’t have run. Paul was so jaded he liked the chase more than the…” Finn paused. He wasn’t going to say sex. His tongue had pulled back to make an r sound. Rape was such an ugly word. It tasted bad. Paul owned him. He had every right to Finn’s body. That Finn would even think of it as…forced sex was demeaning to people who actually didn’t have a choice. But Finn didn’t have a choice either. He didn’t know why he couldn’t say the word.
Devon put his hand over Finn’s, still digging into his skin. “Sweetheart, my wrist. You really have to let go. You can just say it.”
Finn hadn’t been squeezing that hard, had he? But Devon’s wrist was covered in bruises. Finn only remembered squeezing in one place, but there were marks all the way down Devon’s arm. The sun had set, and the bedside lamp and the overhead light were on.
Time hadn’t skipped on him in a really long time.
Finn let go. “What word?” he asked, turning away so he didn’t have to see what he had done. He took up his own wrist but couldn’t force himself to apply any pressure. His self-preservation instincts kicked in. He should apologize, but the words were inadequate. He wanted to lick where he’d hurt, but Devon might not like Finn touching him again. He held out his own hand, limp for Devon to damage.
His face felt wet from shed tears he couldn’t remember shedding. His eyes felt the kind of dry that only came from crying too much. He had a pounding headache that usually took a while to build up to, but his head hadn’t been hurting when he grabbed Devon’s wrist.
Devon’s stepmother Muriel had made him forget juice that erased the last fifteen minutes of his memory. He must have been pounding it back.
“Go on,” Finn said. When Devon didn’t take Finn’s offered wrist, Finn lifted his face to be backhanded. “Please, Devon. Mark me. It’s only fair.”
Devon just leaned over and kissed Finn’s cheek. “I’m so sorry.”
“Nothing happened,” Finn said dully. “You’ve hurt yourself on your boat. You don’t blame your boat, do you?”
“My boat didn’t hurt me. They were careless accidents.”
“I was careless too,” Finn told him. He had to keep track of the time. If he waited too long, he’d be stuck with these memories. “He didn’t hurt me until after I fucked up, and even if I didn’t, you can’t hurt a masochist.” The word was a mouthful. He’d never called himself that before, even if he’d always liked the sting of a riding crop. If Paul had taken the time to get Finn worked up, he would have mounted Paul willingly. Penetration was the only way Finn could scratch the itch deep inside him.
But the only pain Paul ever fed him was spoiled and sour. Finn couldn’t do anything with it. Pinching caused a pain only his nerve endings could feel, and being branded hurt too much. Finn wasn’t that much of a pain slut. Paul had marked the inside of Finn’s elbow nine times. The production Paul had made out of the preparations was worse than the actual agony. He covered the marks with his hand and hugged himself.
“You’re not going back,” Devon said. “You’re going to stay with me. No one is going to burn you ever again. I promise. You’re not going to hurt unless you want to. That’s over for you.”
“I hurt you on purpose.”
“It’s fine,” Devon said. He moved his fingers, darting them back and forth like a wounded fish. The movement caught Finn’s attention despite himself.
“Have you ever been pinched?” Finn asked.
“Never by someone trying to hurt me, no,” Devon said.
“I used to be all time. Before Paul. The boys in my class would dig their nails in and twist so quick there was nothing for the teacher to see. I’d always get yelled at for kicking up a fuss. My mom swooped in and put me in private school because the boys were so mean to me. I was shy and didn’t know how to talk to humans. They didn’t laugh, they brayed like donkeys. They were stupid, and they stank.”
The boys hadn’t pinched him in the same places as Paul did. It was humiliating how easily Paul could leave him curled up on the floor, deflating Finn’s show of defiance with a literal flick of his fingers. In his seal form, his genitals were sensibly tucked up inside him.
When Finn’s mom really wanted to make sure Finn heard what she was saying, she would drop down to her knees so they were eye to eye. Finn would have given anything to see his mother one more time. When things were really serious, she would scoop him up and lift him onto the chair so he was the one who could see the matter from a different perspective. She’d made it clear to him that no one was allowed to touch him anywhere his bathing suit covered. It left him with a weird idea that his hip bones were sexual. Finn found Devon’s bone structure in his bathing suit area extremely hot.
Finn didn’t have a human’s sense of modesty, so his mom had to talk to him a lot about keeping his clothes on at public beaches. He’d grown up on the bay, though, running naked on the beach whenever it was warm enough. Public beaches had always been a fight. Finn had howled and squirmed. His mother held him tight while she pulled the swim trunks on, apologizing and crying at the same time for having to force Finn to do anything he didn’t want to do.
One time, after she got his suit on, she stood Finn on a chair and told him that he might one day have to face down a bully when he couldn’t run and there wasn’t any help coming. He had assumed she’d meant someone trying to roll him for his lunch money. When his mother had been alive, he hadn’t been old enough to think that sex was something he could ever have, never mind have it forced out of him. Her advice not to give the bully any power by letting them see him upset or crying had been the only thing that got him through Paul’s idea of sex. During the worst of it, Finn drifted away to remember running around on the sandy beach until the pain stopped twisting inside. He could heal from anything that didn’t kill him.
Devon took Finn’s wrists and kissed the round bones sticking out, one at a time. Finn wanted to tarry in his memory. His mom had long black hair that floated through the water like seaweed but never tangled. His blond hair and blue eyes were so obviously from his father. Finn’s paternal grandparents had insisted on a paternity test, though. When Finn had seen Billy’s ghost in the mirror on the trip up the coast, it was as though he’d had two reflections but for the fact that his father had been in a watery grave for years. It felt strange to think he even had a father.
Thinking of the boat trip brought Finn back to the present time. “I don’t want to go back.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I’m scared that your stepmother is no match for the ocean witch that bound me to Paul.”
“She hasn’t failed you yet.”
Finn licked Devon’s palm. He liked the way it felt slipping his tongue between Devon’s fingers.
“What are you doing?” Devon asked.
“Being your good boy.”
“You don’t have to. Please believe me.”
“Or what?” Finn asked, looking up from running his tongue between Devon’s fingers.
Despite his lack of practice at flirting, Devon smiled in a slow, lazy way. “Or what would you like to happen?”
Finn’s cock jerked awake. If Finn pressed Devon’s fingers together and still worked his tongue in between them, Devon’s breathing changed. “Just what would I like in general?”
“Sure,” Devon said, as easygoing as ever. The sound of the word looped and coiled around Finn, drawing him into Devon’s world where sex wasn’t supposed to hurt unless that was all part of the mutual plan.
“I’d like you…maybe, to take something to me,” Finn said.
“Like a hairbrush?” Devon asked.
“Sure, like a hairbrush,” Finn agreed, disappointed but still smiling because Devon was smiling. Smiling was just a part of Devon’s world. Finn didn’t need to be able to rattle like a snake or growl nearly as much.
“Or?” Devon prompted.
“Or something similar,” Finn said.
“Like a riding crop?” Devon asked.
Finn felt his cheeks warming. He had a crop in his closet, sticking out of his riding boots. Devon had to have seen it. The fuse box was just over Finn’s meager shoe collection.
“But tonight, you could just…” Finn raked his teeth over his bottom lip. “Do you promise you won’t tell anyone what I’m about to say?”
“Hand to my heart, I promise,” Devon said, letting go of Finn’s hand to touch his chest.
“Not even Eddie?” Finn asked.
Devon and his adoptive father were as close as Finn and his mom had been. He hadn’t thought humans could love more than one person. But human hearts didn’t actually have a load limit. In fact, the more a human could love, the better they seemed at it. Finn was Devon’s one and only true love, but he didn’t replace Eddie in any way.
Devon paused. Finn wondered if Devon had ever kept something from Eddie. “I promise,” Devon said. The pause hadn’t been for that long.
Still, Finn hesitated. “I want you to hold me.” The words sounded worse outside of his head.
“I’ll be happy to hold you,” Devon said. “Finn, you know you don’t have to be sarcastic all the time. You can actually tell me what you want to say. It will be okay.”
Finn opened his mouth to tell Devon he understood. The words “I think Paul raped me” came out instead. Finn let go of Devon’s hand. The cat was out of the bag. They weren’t ever going to have sex again.
Finn pulled away, covering his mouth with his hand. Even if Devon was never going to look at him the same way, Finn still felt a huge load fall off his shoulders. Devon’s face didn’t change, but Finn suddenly wanted them both to drink the forget juice. Devon would drink it if Finn insisted. If Devon was going to drink it with Finn, though, Finn might as well know what it felt like to unload everything, even if he was going to forget that feeling too. “I think he raped me all the time. I think the first time we had sex, he made me forget how we got into the bed. The only thing I remember was waking up to him inside me. I don’t think I ever wanted it.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you, Finn. Nothing you did made him do that to you.”
Finn narrowed his eyes. Whether Devon’s words were rehearsed or not, they felt sincere. Finn didn’t want Devon’s pity. “That’s not true. He was allowed to do whatever he wanted. I shouldn’t feel so…” Violated would have been harder to say than rape itself. Animals had no concept of violation. Bachelor seals mated with each other. Sea lions too. It was mutually beneficial to both parties. But Finn didn’t like being held down and pushed into.
Devon got down on his knees beside the bed. “You are allowed to feel however you want about it. No one has the right to hurt you like that. And most importantly, Finn, you’re allowed to feel the way you do. You don’t have to keep hiding it. He is a terrible human being who gets off on hurting you against your will. You don’t have to make sense of that. There is no sense to be made.”
Finn wanted to sigh. Nothing he’d said to Devon had obviously stuck. “That’s so human,” he said, not meaning to make the word an insult, but there it was. “It’s in all the fairy tales. When the fisherman finds a selkie’s pelt, they get married. I should have loved him, and if I’d loved him, I would want to have sex with him. It’s how we’re made. You find yourself a selkie pelt, you get yourself a selkie. It should have been something I wanted.” He got up and went to the fridge, but the water bottle that had the black string that marked it as special was empty. “Where’s the rest? I don’t want to remember this. I don’t want you to either.”
“You told me you didn’t want any more made. You said you’d be ready to tell the truth the next time. You promised me not to make you any.”
Humans smelled differently when they were lying. Devon was telling the truth, and it sounded like something Finn would say. He felt better for having the words out, but that would mean he’d have to live as someone who had been raped. Finn shook the bottle. It was completely empty. He vaguely remembered standing where he was, holding the bottle upside down and waiting for the last drop to fall on his tongue. Magic didn’t have a prescribed dose.
“Devon, please,” Finn said. He didn’t plead. That drop of forget juice had been the last little bit in the bottle. He remembered crying, pleading with Devon for one more go at remembering it the right way. No wonder Devon sounded so practiced at saying he was sorry. Finn shook the bottle again.
Devon sighed from the side of the bed. “I’ll make you some more.” He looked so tired. “This is the first time you’ve wanted me to drink some.”
“How many times have I had this conversation with you?” Finn asked.
“You’ve never gotten this far before. You couldn’t deal with remembering the pinching.”
Finn closed the fridge and sat, his pelt running smoothly down the door. He landed harder on his tailbone than he thought he would. His poor little tail spat shocks up his spinal cord in complaint. Devon was up like a shot, but Finn refused to take the offered hand. “Would you kiss my tail?” Finn asked.
Devon sank down beside him. “Of course I would.”
Finn was running out of time. “Is forget juice an involved process?”
“Not really. You add magic sand to distilled water. Takes about thirty seconds.”
“What happens if you use tap water?”
“Dunno, and I won’t risk it.”
Finn climbed onto Devon’s lap.
“What are you doing?” Devon asked.
“You said you’d kiss my tail better,” Finn said. He reached behind him. His tail was the only part of his seal body that existed in both his human and selkie form, though it was more like a ghost tail than invisible. Finn could feel it, but Devon could drag his finger right through it. Devon said his finger went numb where the tail was. Finn reached behind him and flicked the little nub. It still hurt from where he fell on it. “Please?”
Devon shifted, lifting Finn up with his knees for most of the way, and then scooped him up for the time it took to kiss the base of Finn’s tailbone. “Good enough?”
Finn nodded. Devon lowered him back down to the floor. He stroked the back of Finn’s neck. Time was running out. Finn was going to remember hurting Devon’s wrist, but maybe that wasn’t a bad thing.
“May I ask you a question, Finn?”
“I like the way you say my name,” Finn said, relaxing into Devon’s lap.
“I like saying it.” Devon smiled. “It’s really pretty. You’re a seal, and your name is Finn. Your mom must have been amazing.”
Finn was smiling too. “She was.” He paused. “What did you want to know?”
Devon spread his hands. “What did you get out of your deal?”
“Huh?” Finn asked, completely confused.
“A deal is between two people, right? An agreed-upon arrangement? What did you get when you agreed with Paul to hand over your life? Your mom made three deals with the Sea Witch. She got you out off a sinking yacht, back onto dry land, and let you keep your love for me when you gave Paul your heart, for better or worse. Those are three very big things to trade her life away for. Don’t get me wrong. I’m very glad she did, despite the cost to her. But I have to ask, what did you get?”
Finn touched his temples with the tips of his fingers. Finn remembered the wave crashing through the window of the wheelhouse of his grandparents’ boat. The glass cut open his inner thigh as the water swept out to sea and dragged him through the broken window. He’d popped up several hundred yards from the sinking boat. He’d been in the water long enough that it had turned warm, either from the lost blood or the urine, but nothing else had surfaced. He was alone, cut open and bleeding, hundreds of miles from any shoreline. Young selkies feared sharks the way human children were afraid of monsters under the bed. Boogeymen had nothing on the killing machines so adept that evolution hadn’t changed them in three hundred and fifty million years.
Then Finn had woken up in his bed without a mark on his leg.
When Paul had told Finn to bring the most valuable thing he owned to the yacht, Finn had, without a second thought, brought the pendant with the two pearls that his mother had given him. He didn’t know why he thought Paul would take his precious treasure and let him go, but Paul had told Finn to leave his pelt behind in the car.
Paul had a leak-proof barrel of chum on the deck, but Finn was so sensitive to the smell of death he knew immediately what the blue barrel contained. The smell didn’t cover up the smell of smoke Finn picked up every time he stepped on board, but it lingered. When he asked about it, Paul said he’d chartered his boat out to some salesmen and he hadn’t had a chance to dispose of the chum yet. It wasn’t just the smell of rot that turned Finn’s stomach as Paul’s captain took the yacht out to sea; Finn knew he was fucked, in all senses of the word.
If Paul had stolen Finn’s pelt, Finn would have pined away and died, locked in his human form. Paul forced Finn to give over the necklace representing Finn’s heart instead. Finn was sickeningly grateful to be able to swim even with Paul’s collar on. Not that Finn had given it willingly. When they were far enough out in the open ocean, Paul dropped the anchor and picked up the barrel by himself. The barrel would have weighed two hundred and fifty pounds, easy, but Paul tipped it over and hoisted it up and over the railing without touching the wood finish.
The smell took an instant to reach Finn. He barely made it over the railing before his supper joined the oily slick of fish chunks and blood. A decapitated fish head with an eye as big as Finn’s fist stared up at him as he finished heaving until nothing but foamy bile came up.
The sun had been setting when they left the dock, but there wasn’t a trace of nautical twilight in the sky. It was dark, late, and cold. Tears and snot ran down Finn’s face. Paul dangled Finn over the railing as though Finn weighed nothing at all. Finn didn’t fight for fear of Paul dropping him.
“Still think you can swim back?” Paul had asked.
Finn shook his head.
“If I let you go, will you give me the necklace?” Paul had whispered.
Finn tried not to nod too enthusiastically in case he slipped out of Paul’s grip. When Finn held the pendant to his ear he could hear a faint heartbeat coming from the pearls. Paul was asking for more than oyster spit, filigree, and chain. He wanted Finn to give up everything.
“Say ‘yes, sir,’” Paul ordered. “And mean it.”
“Yes, sir,” Finn repeated.
Paul shook him. “Give it to me.”
Finn had to take one hand off Paul’s wrist to reach into his pocket. He hadn’t put the necklace on. He’d taken it out of the jewelry box his mother had given him for the other sparkly things he’d found. A chunk of purple geode was next to a diamond hairpin beside a giant brooch or costume jewelry. Finn loved shiny things.
The box had a locked drawer. The hairpin belonged to his great grandmother, and the diamond on it was more than a carat in size. Finn’s hair never grew; it was always more like a pelt than hair, but his mother could flatten his cowlick and slide the pin in place until she removed it. Every time he tried, it fell straight out. As precious as it was, the pin still stayed outside the locked drawer with the chunk of rock he found with Devon. The pearl necklace was the only item he locked away from everyone. Once his mother died, it became too precious to let humans see it.
Finn reached into his pocket and pulled the chain out. Paul let go of Finn’s shirt. The only thing keeping Finn on the boat was Paul’s grip on the back of Finn’s neck. Finn tried not to breathe. Paul didn’t grab the pendant but held his hand out flat underneath it. Finn had to give it to him. In no way could Paul just take it. The moment the last of the links of the chain slipped out of Finn’s fingers, Finn felt the deal pull him down, like getting his foot caught in a rope attached to an anchor. The anchor went deeper and deeper, pulling Finn with it. At least now Paul would be destroying his own property if he dropped Finn into the chum slick. Finn wondered what Paul had on the captain, that he would let Paul dangle young men off the back of his boat.
And that was it. Finn’s life was over. His “employment” had begun.