Kevin awoke to the characteristic calamity of the household. Mother downstairs, getting his older brothers fed before football practice. Father, late for work, looking for his keys. Above the din of frantic searching and clattering plates were the wails of baby Sarah. No one had woken Kevin for breakfast, not that they had to. A busy family was its own alarm clock.
It was midsummer, so there was no reason to get up early for school, just to get breakfast while there was some to be had. He got out of bed, admiring his little corner of the house. His room was an ode to the fantastical: statues of knights and dragons, books instead of video games, wooden sword and shield instead of bat and catcher’s mitt. He left his little sanctuary, walking downstairs to the landing where his dad stood, keys in hand.
“I found them!” he shouted to no one in particular. He noticed Kevin and knelt down for a hurried hug. “Have a good day, champ. Stay out of trouble.”
In the kitchen, his brothers devoured pancakes, bacon and eggs, inhaling their food so as not to be late for a ride to football practice. Kevin thought that pigs at a trough had better table manners. Meanwhile, his mom held a spoon, white knuckled, trying to feed a baby on a hunger strike.
“Morning, sweetie,” she said. “Help yourself.”
A car horn blared outside, and she looked at the twins. “Your ride’s here, hurry!” The two stood, jostling each other to be first out of the kitchen, shoving right past Kevin. He sat down, helping himself to what was left. Two cold pancakes and a piece of charred bacon. Sarah finally took a bite and calmed down, then the phone rang. His mom answered, forcing a calm demeanor.
“Hello? Yes, hi, Mr. Brenner. Certainly, I can retype the memo. Whatever the client wants, I’m at the home office. I see. Thank you.” She hung up the phone and massaged her temples.
“Kevin, can you be a dear and clean up?”
“Thank you.” She picked up Sarah and headed to her back office, which now doubled as a nursery.
Kevin finished eating, then cleaned the table and wiped up mashed banana from the high chair. After such a din, silence left a strange vacuum. After he finished, he headed to the backyard. Their house was at the end of the road in the forest, several miles from town, but only a short walk to the ocean. The sky was clear and the breeze smelled of the sea.
His favorite place was a cove, nestled between high rocky outcroppings. Seaweed and driftwood washed ashore as gulls called to each other overhead. He picked up a piece of driftwood and held it like a sword, swinging against orcs and trolls, vanquishing evil and saving princesses. He wasn’t Kevin anymore. He was Lancelot, Galahad and King Arthur partaking in one grand adventure after the next.
He grew bored, arms tired from battling imaginary foes, and threw the driftwood into the sea before lying down on the beach, the hot summer sun beating down while the cool ocean air blew against him. Then he heard a splash, an abrupt sound, like a heavy stick landing in the water. He sat up in time to see a tail slip beneath the waves, long and covered in multi-colored scales.
Kevin stood, watching the water. Something moved beneath the surface and drew closer to the shore. His first thought was to run, but curiosity stayed his feet. The shape beneath the waves drew closer, then broke the surface in a spray of salt water.
A serpentine body, eight feet long and round as a tree trunk, slithered onto the beach. Prismatic scales glinted in the sunlight, reflecting all the colors of a rainbow. It held a piece of driftwood in its mouth, looking at him with round eyes reminiscent of a seal, its large pupils surrounded by a golden iris. When it stopped, two fins fanned out where ears would go.
“Play?” a voice sounded in Kevin’s head as he stood, too shocked to move.
“How are you in my head?” he managed to ask.
The sea serpent dropped the piece of wood, then swam back into the water. Its head emerged, ears fanning out to either side. Kevin picked up the stick and tossed it again, and the creature snatched it from the air, then swam back to the shore.
“What are you?” Kevin asked, taking a step forward, extending his hand. “Friendly, I hope…”
The creature sniffed at him, then bent lower. Kevin scratched it between the ears, which fluttered gently. Its body rumbled, like a large cat purring.
“Do you have a name?”
A trumpeting sound echoed in Kevin’s head, a few sharp beats, like a dolphin call being played by a flute.
“No way I can pronounce that,” Kevin said. Then, he thought of stories he’d read about the Loch Ness Monster. “How about Ness?”
“Ness is good.” The voice within Kevin’s head sounded childlike, and grew lazy as he scratched between its ears. His ears? Her ears? Kevin wasn’t sure how to check, but thought Ness sounded like a girl’s name, so went with that. She brushed her snout against him, butting her head gently against his chest. The scales had a silky feel to them, softer than one expected from a reptile.
“Kevin!” Mother’s voice called from afar. “Lunchtime!”
Ness’s head snapped up and Kevin turned towards the forest path.
“I have to go,” he said, turning back towards Ness. “Will you be back?”
“Yes.” Ness slithered back into the water, then her head popped up above the surface. “Bring snacks for Ness.” And with that, she was gone. Kevin studied the sand. It was clear that something had slithered through it. He picked up the stick they’d played with, which had subtle bite marks. He could feel them, running a finger along the rough driftwood. This was real.
“Kevin!” This time the voice was right behind him. He turned to see his mother on the forest path. “Come have lunch. Sarah just went to sleep and I don’t want to wake her up yelling for you.”
Kevin followed, glancing back quickly to see if Ness was hidden. He saw her snout, just above the surface. She winked before going back beneath the waves.
In the kitchen, his mom had prepared some ham sandwiches, and they sat down to eat.
“So, I hear that the neighbor’s son, Tommy, is home from summer camp. It would be nice for you to play with him.”
“I don’t like Tommy. He picks his nose and smears it on things.”
“Yes, well, a few years ago you weren’t the cleanest 7-year-old either.”
Kevin focused on his sandwich, aware that her eyes were upon him. He knew the conversation they were about to have. They’d had it a dozen times, and would probably have it a dozen more. Like the other talks, this one began with a sigh.
“Kevin, you need to spend time with kids your own age. It isn’t healthy being alone all the time. You’re a creative boy, and that’s great, but you need to make friends.”
He didn’t see why he needed friends when he had stories. People could disappoint you, but legends never did. He humored his parents when they sent him to Boy Scouts and summer camp, but the best part of those days were when he got home and could imagine in peace.
“Kevin? Are you listening?”
“OK,” he said.
“OK,” she repeated. “That’s all you say. Sometimes I worry if you’re paying any attention to…” Sarah chose that moment to wail for attention. His mom stood, frowning at Kevin before answering the baby’s call.
Kevin cleared the plates, then rummaged through the kitchen. What did sea serpents eat? He chose an apple, a peanut butter sandwich, a can of tuna and cookies. He brought the food down to the cove and sat in the sand. Soon, the water began to ripple as a large form drew closer. Ness’s snout broke through the surface before she slithered onto the beach, gliding as though not quite touching the sand.
“Snacks for Ness?”
“Yup, snacks for Ness.” Kevin selected a cookie, and Ness opened her mouth, craning her neck down before him. He placed the cookie on her tongue, and she swallowed it whole. Her pupils grew large, ears fanning out.
“Ness likes snacks!” The tip of her tail raised up, flicking back and forth. “More?”
Kevin chuckled and tossed another in the air, which she caught and swallowed. They spent the rest of the day that way. She loved the cookies, and the sandwich. He tried to open the tuna, but she snapped the can from his hand and ate it whole. It didn’t seem to bother her. She rolled the apple with her snout, curious that this object was food.
After eating, she coiled up on the beach behind him, and he rested against her.
“Where did you come from?” he asked.
“Ocean,” she responded.
“Right. Stupid question.”
They played fetch until the sun began to set. Kevin bid Ness farewell. Supper would be soon, and he didn’t want Mother coming down to find him. Ness nuzzled his chest, gently licking the back of his hand before slithering back into the water.
He arrived to help set the table and they all sat down to eat. His dad talked to the twins about sports. They were both vying to be quarterback when school started. Mom fussed over Sarah. Sometimes family dinners left Kevin feeling melancholy, but not tonight. Tonight, he had a secret all his own. His dad had two athletic sons, his mom had a baby daughter. And Kevin had made friends with a mythical creature he couldn’t wait to see again.
* * *
Kevin walked down to the cove on a late August evening, awash with a sense of melancholy. The long summer days were coming to an end. Tomorrow it was back to school. After two months playing at the cove with Ness, it was back to daydreaming though the sluggish hours, doodling instead of taking notes, procrastinating before frantic studying and a barely passing grade. He hoped Ness would understand his absence, and not abandon the cove.
He found her on the beach, tunneled under the sand, with only her eyes and snout visible. Her nostrils flared open and closed, snoring in tune with the waves lapping up on the shore. Kevin sat cross-legged before her, removing his backpack and the brown paper bag from within. It contained remnants of a barbecue he’d taken from the fridge: hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs and potato salad.
He pulled out a burger and held it up to her nose. Her eyes snapped open and her ears fanned out, fluttering in the breeze as she rose from the sand, tail whipping back and forth through the air.
“Treat?” Without waiting for a response her forked tongue flickered out, snatching it from his hand.
“Yes, Ness. Treat.” He wiped the saliva from his palm before taking out another burger. Ness opened her mouth, eyes large and round. “This one’s for me, hold on!”
He ate the burger while Ness slithered up and down the beach, watching impatiently as he finished. He took out a hot dog and tossed it in the air, which she snapped up. They ate for a while before Kevin felt like breaking the news.
“I can’t hang out all day anymore,” he said. “I have to go to school tomorrow.
“School of fish?” Ness asked, head cocked to the side.
“No,” Kevin said, unable to suppress a chuckle. “A school of humans. A bunch of dumb humans.”
“Oh…” Ness’s ears drooped down. “Can’t play anymore?”
“Of course I can,” Kevin said. She came forward and lowered her head. He scratched beneath her chin, one of her favorite spots. “Just not all day.” He walked over and selected a long piece of driftwood. “But we have all night.” He threw it into the water, smiling as Ness slithered after it.
Junior High School
“I thought you were smarter than this, Kevin, I really did.”
Kevin didn’t say anything, just rested his bruised face against the car window as they drove home from school early.
“How do you think it’s acceptable behavior, getting into a fight like that?”
Kevin remained silent.
“Answer me, Kevin!”
“He took Lancelot out of my bag,” Kevin said. “Then he broke him, and laughed at me.”
“So you pushed him?”
“Then he punched me!” Kevin said, ashamed that his eyes were watering. He couldn’t look at his dad, not the man who took such pride in a set of athletic twins.
“Well, a school is not a place for a boy to bring little toy dolls,” Father said. “Now I had to get called out of work. I hope you’ll be happy spending the weekend in your room. No TV, no going to the cove. You spend too much time down there.”
“Better than the house.”
“What was that?” Kevin knew from the tone it had been the wrong thing to say.
“It’s better than being in the house!” The tears felt hot on his cheeks, his shame doubling, but he couldn’t stop. “Mom’s busy with Sarah, and all you care about is talking football with Jacob and Mark. What else am I supposed to do?”
His dad looked at him, a shadow of regret in his eyes, then shook his head with a tired sigh. “You’re supposed to make friends with boys your own age. Talk to girls. Tease girls. This fantasy world isn’t healthy.”
They spent the rest of the trip in silence. When they got home, he could hear his parents arguing. After that, his mom hadn’t taken the time to scold him. Sarah had discovered the remarkable ways crayons complemented the living room wall, so that was the focus of her attention. Kevin went to his room, passing the bathroom as he did so. He looked in the mirror, at the black eye and swollen lip. A beating from a much larger boy seemed punishment enough without getting his parents involved.
He sat in his room until dinner. His brothers mocked the black eye, asking where his fairy heroes were to save him. After dinner, he would have gone down to the cove to see Ness. But after a lecture from both parents, he was sent to his room, where he was meant to stay and study every night of the week and through the weekend. Kevin didn’t really mind being in his room, since he had his books. But he would miss seeing Ness.
He sat on his bed with a book he couldn’t focus on when something tapped on the window. He walked to it and saw a looming shadow against the night sky; one with wide eyes and a tongue flicking gently on the window.
“Ness!” Kevin quickly opened the window. “What are you doing? They’ll see you!”
“They sleep.” Her head squeezed through the window, making the frame creak, but it held. “You didn’t come?”
“I can’t go to the cove. I’m being punished.”
Her tongue flicked out, gently brushing beneath his black eye, and her eyes drooped.
“Yeah, I got into a fight.”
“Because people suck,” he said, flopping back into bed. “I just want to be left alone. Mom and Dad don’t understand me, neither do my brothers, and Sarah’s 4 years old. Without you, I don’t have anyone.”
“No one wants to be my friend,” Kevin said. “I’m just another nerd.”
Ness craned her neck further into the room. She studied one of the armored figurines on his dresser.
“Don’t be those things. Be a knight instead.”
“Oh?” Kevin propped himself up on his elbows. “How am I supposed to do that?”
“Be like a knight. Knights are brave,” she turned to regard him. “So be brave.”
* * *
Kevin sat alone in the cafeteria, prodding his food with a fork. The smell killed his appetite faster than eating it possibly could. But his disgust fought a losing battle with hunger, so he took a bite and washed it down with orange juice. Mother used to pack lunches for him, before she was busy with Sarah. He regretted taking that small act of kindness for granted all those years. He shoveled another fork load from the tray, willing his taste buds to turn off. No such luck.
“Eww,” Ness’s voice echoed in his mind. Kevin sat upright, looking around, though he knew she couldn’t be in the cafeteria.
“Ness?” he whispered. “Where are you?”
“The cove.” The voice was clear to him, but distant, like it came from the other end of a long tunnel. “Bored. Wanted to say hi.”
“I didn’t know you could do that. You can sense what I’m feeling?”
“Yes. I feel your mind. It doesn’t like this place. It’s lonely.”
“It is,” Kevin said, keeping his voice to a whisper, eyes down at his tray. He hoped no one noticed. Being the weird kid was one thing, but being the weird kid who talked to food would be much worse.
“What’s that game?” Ness asked, prodding his attention. He looked at another table at the corner of the cafeteria. A group of boys sat with stacks of books, piles of dice and sheets of paper in front of them. He’d heard of the game: Dungeons and Dragons. No one in his elementary school had played it, but he’d seen books at the local game shop. It looked fun, but he didn’t recognize any of the kids playing from his classes.
“I don’t know them,” Kevin whispered to Ness. “I can’t butt in with people I’m not friends with.”
“Everyone’s a stranger until you introduce yourself,” Ness said, sensing the reason for his hesitation. “Go.”
“Be brave,” Kevin whispered, finishing Ness’s thought. He threw out what remained of his food, then approached the gaming table. The players noticed him coming, and a hush fell over them. Kevin could imagine how they felt. Maybe they also had older brothers who bullied them for having such a dorky hobby.
“Hey,” he said, trying his best to sound casual. “I noticed your game. Mind if I join in?”
“Have you played before?” one of them asked.
“No, but I’ve always wanted to.” They glanced at each other, one of them shrugged, then they made room for him. Just like that, no awkwardness, as Kevin had imagined.
“I’m the Game Master, so I basically put you and everyone else on a quest. What kind of character do you want?”
Kevin didn’t need to think twice. “I want to be a knight.”
* * *
Kevin hid behind a tree, listening for his pursuer, his broadsword in a firm two-handed grip. The sword was made of PVC pipe wrapped in Styrofoam and duct tape, but in his mind’s eye it was his character’s sword of holy vengeance. He heard someone approaching, and spun around with the sword raised.
“Fireball!” shouted Sam, the group wizard, as he hurled a water balloon that struck him in the face.
“That’s cheating!” Kevin coughed. “I killed you in the last battle.”
“Oh,” Sam said as he regarded the other balloon in his hand. “Undead fireball!” he shouted, hitting Kevin with the second one.
“Have at thee!” Kevin laughed, chasing Sam through the woods.
They emerged at the cove, where the rest of the adventuring party awaited. They took a break, sitting on driftwood benches and opening the lunches his mom had prepared. She was happy to make sandwiches for his new friends, and his dad helped him put together a collection of Styrofoam swords, axes and shields.
“This is a great place to hang out,” Nick, their Game Master, said. “Thank your mom for the sandwiches too, these are great.”
The others mumbled their agreement through full mouths. The cove had gone from Kevin’s sanctuary to a weekend hangout for his new friends. Besides the driftwood benches, they’d built a small clubhouse, the club name changing on a weekly basis depending on how everyone felt. Currently, they were the Trollbasher Brigade.
They talked over each other as they ate, discussing the intricacies of Dwarvan metal work, binding for spell books and why half-elves couldn’t also be called half-humans. Kevin partially listened while he scanned the ocean, thinking about Ness. He’d seen less of her as he spent more time with his friends. Whenever he did, she didn’t seem at all bothered that he was doing other things. He’d toss sticks for her in the ocean, bring her food and enjoy the serenity that the cove provided.
They finished eating, and picked up their respective weapons, arguing about who won last time and who the teams should be as they walked to the woods. Kevin followed, laughing along with them, but stopped at the forest’s edge to look back at the cove, wishing he’d left a sandwich for Ness. He caught a glimpse of her head above the water. There was a wide smile on her reptilian lips, and she winked at him before going back beneath the waves.
“Hey, guys!” Kevin said, turning towards his friends. “Wait up!”
Kevin walked down to the cove, a picnic basket in hand with a blanket under his arm. The sun was sinking beneath the horizon, painting the sky in shades of purple and red through a light blanket of fog. He spread the blanket out on the beach, then opened the basket. Two sets of paper plates, plastic cups and napkins. A few cans of soda, hamburgers and condiments. Everything was perfect, save for his nerves, which hummed in anxious anticipation.
He turned to see Ness slithering from the water. She seemed older, the scales around her eyes more wrinkled, their vibrant beauty becoming dull and grey. Even so, her eyes were wide and playful.
“Treat?” Her voice hadn’t changed, remaining young and playful. Kevin put his hands in his pockets, kicking at a rock.
“Yeah, but they’re not for you.”
She came closer, craning her neck down to sniff the basket.
She raised her head, looked at him for a moment, then gently butted his chest with her snout.
Kevin wasn’t sure what to say. He needn’t say anything, since she knew how he felt.
“You’ve outgrown me.”
It was a truth that Kevin had avoided for a while. He remembered the summer before junior high school, finding a miracle and a friend. Then in junior high, her encouragement turning rough and lonely years into ones of new friends and activities. Now there was tonight. His first date, with a real girl, and not one he was imagining.
“I have,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“No sorry. Just happy.” She nuzzled against him, and he wrapped his arms around her neck. He opened his eyes, and she was gone. Not, of course, that she’d ever been there. Telepathic sea serpents didn’t exist. But years ago, to a boy with no friends and a vivid imagination, they were the most real thing in the world.
“So,” a real voice said behind him. “This is where you boys swing sticks around and play Jedi?”
Kevin turned around. Maggie, a girl in his science class, walked down from the forest path.
“We’re not Jedi knights, we’re the Medieval ones.”
“What’s the difference?” she asked with a teasing raised eyebrow.
“We don’t have laser swords.”
“Ah. Good to know.”
They sat on the blanket, and Kevin served the food. They ate and talked, first about school, then about hobbies. He’d discovered a passion for sailing, which she shared. They also liked stupid horror movies. They talked and laughed, the conversation dwindling until they sat silently. She rested just close enough for him to smell perfume on her neck.
He looked into her eyes, then down to her soft, slightly parted lips. She leaned back on the blanket, brushing the hair from her face, inviting him. Even though he knew it wasn’t real, he could still hear Ness’s voice in the back of his mind.