Leo the Mer-Guy! Chapter Sixteen: MerCulture

Leo had just enough consciousness left to nod in affirmation.


His mouth popped open, desperate for oxygen.


Instead of filling with cold rushing water, Leo took in a ragged, gasping, but completely oxygenated, breath.


He opened his eyes.


He was at the bottom of the pond.


A glowing light about the size of a lightbulb illuminated the water around him. Beneath his feet were sand and stones and shells.


He was in an air bubble as big as those human hamster balls Leo had been hearing so much about.


Just outside the air bubble, small, brown fish swam past.


And there was a person floating there looking at him.


Except they weren’t a person, not exactly, at least. They had a tail, like an actual fish tail. It was brown-gold and scary and lined with fins, and looked way different from Ariel in the Little Mermaid. It was a lot more… fishy.


They had a human torso, but their skin was toned grey-blue, and was just as scaly-shiny as their tail, with gills lining their sides like ribs. Their fingers were webbed, their lips plush, their nose slitted and smooth against their face. Their ears were pointed like Spock’s and had small cilia fluttering off of them in the water current. Their hair moved in one big piece, oily and slick.


And their eyes.


Their eyes glowed orange, with dark pupils like a cat’s eye.


Leo was frozen. He stared at the other person in shock.


It was a lot to take in.


The fish person lifted a webbed, blue hand and waved it. Their bubble lips pursed in an awkward smile. They hugged their other arm around their sparkly torso. “Um, hi?” the fish person said. It was bubbly and strange, but somehow Leo still heard it, still understood. “Are you Leo?”


“Um…” Leo wasn’t sure how to respond. You didn’t really get taught the protocol for this kind of thing in school. “Yes?”


“Oh, good, cool,” the mer-person said. “I’m Aristea. We’ve been expecting you.”


“Oh… wow,” Leo said, feeling like an idiot. “What pronouns do you use?”


Aristea blinked and cocked their head. “What?”


“Like how should I refer to you? She spoke, he spoke, they spoke…”


Aristea shrugged. “Any of that is cool,” they said. “We don’t really use the same uselessly exclusive social constructs down here.”


Theo Poling is a Creative Writing and Arts double major at the University of Michigan. In their free time, Theo enjoys fostering cats, baking, and going on hikes. Theo is transgender, nonbinary, and bisexual, and is passionate about representing LGBTQ people in positive ways in genre fiction. Theo's series, We Exist! is a weekly serial that publishes short story chapters about empowered queer protagonists in science fiction and fantasy settings, where queer people have previously been excluded. Check out the newest installment of We Exist! every Thursday.

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