Your grandfather was a fisherman. Your father and aunts and uncles worked the waters and the docks in the coastal town you hail from. It’s not glamorous, and nobody in the family had made it into college before. You grew up in a tidy little house that always smelled a bit of fish with a huge extended family.
Nobody expected the scholarship letter when it arrived, praising your performance in the local high school swim team, and nobody had ever heard of the school. Your parents were thrilled, and so were most of the aunts and uncles. Your grandfather was suspicious, making vague noises that sounded like “tricks and bargains and that kind of business.” What he said out loud was: “Don’t ever leave the sea. It’ll break your heart, girl.”
You were excited and optimistic and exuberant, and you packed your competition suit and a bag of things from home and you went off to college, not listening.
Freshman year was odd. You knew you wouldn’t really fit in, given you were a scholarship kid from the back end of the east coast, but it was more than that. You were, of course, on the women’s swim team, but some of the other athletes were … you couldn’t put your finger on it. A couple of the girls seemed too tall, and they never quite got the green from the pool out of their hair. One of the boys was much stockier than the others, a bit like your dad, but he could swim as fast and powerfully as you. He wouldn’t ever speak to you. Some of them were hard to look at, and kept to themselves. Some of them were just ordinary, but they kind of steered clear of you too. It seemed the only thing holding the teams together were the coaches. There were practices, and competitions and your team always did amazingly, but never made it out of state.
Your classes were … classes. Like high school but more interesting. Your managed to keep a decent GPA to hold onto that scholarship, but some of it was a chore. Sandy the RA gave you a list of rules and warned you about some of the other students. There was some superstition about, but given your heritage, none of that seemed off. Fishermen are superstitious folks.
Your roommate was snooty and complained constantly that you still smelled of fish, especially after winter break. You finally told her to go suck a clam and she stopped speaking to you. That was fine with you. You weren’t much for socializing with people who didn’t know the ocean.
That one guy, though, the one who asked you out after the first week of Comp 102 in January. That one, he was great. He was some kind of surfer kid from California. Not a college athlete, but Surfer Boy skated everywhere, talked constantly about the beaches and waves. Somehow tan even in winter.
The third week you were dating, he got you that steel ring for “safety” and you thought it was sweet. It said “always yours” on the inside and got stuck on your finger.
And then - your swimming performance dropped off. They threatened to bench you. There was an uncomfortable conference with the coach and the dean. The rest of the team avoided you even more, and Surfer Boy got … weird. Possessive. Mean.
He thought it was fine that you weren’t competing for a while. He could have you all to himself outside of class time. Isn’t that great? Maybe you could come to California with him for Spring Break. You didn’t want to, though. You wanted to go back to the cold water of home.
Then, about a week after you got benched, out of the blue while you were studying together, he asked you where your skin was. You had no idea what he meant, WTF was this serial killer shit he was asking you? You suddenly remembered Sandy’s warnings, and took off without your books to ask her for help, maybe how to get a restraining order? And maybe to help get this ring off, too.
Sandy the RA (short for Cassandra? Because nobody ever listened to her, not because it was her name) halfway listened to you, nodded tiredly, grabbed a form from a file for submitting to the dean of students and campus security and had you fill it out. Then, as you were both reading the forms over for errors, she looked up sharply, said, “Wait. A ring? Let me see that.”
Sandy took one look at it, got out a saw, and before you could even react, cut it off your finger, in two pieces. One piece said “always” the other said “yours” and she shook her head. “I thought I told you to never accept gifts?”
“But he’s just human, Sandy. Normal, even. More normal than I am.”
“Yeah, nobody ever listens to me.”
Under where the ring had sat for two of the worst weeks of your life, was fur. Sleek, short, dark fur. You yelped.
Sandy blinked slowly, somehow looking completely unsurprised, and said, “That stocky guy on the men’s swim team? The one they call Lion? GO. Talk to him. Show him your hand, he’ll talk to you now. I think he can help.”
As you left, she said, with her back turned, “I don’t think your grandfather was completely honest with you. Have you ever seen any photos of your grandmother? Do you know where she was from?”