Firstling Chapter Three: Grunion Run

He drove us right along the coastline, past the public beaches, where bonfires were still lit, people gathered around, roasting marshmallows and sharing stories.  We drove past the parked cars and hotels and the restaurants around the pier, and then we drove some more, until I saw that we had taken a turn off the main road and onto a sandy one.  No other cars were in front or behind, and when a no trespassing sign turned up, I looked at him in concern.

“My friend at the aquarium comes here all the time,” Khit said.

“Who is this friend? You’ve never mentioned him or her to me before.”

Now that I thought about it, Khit never talked about any of his friends. It was almost as though he didn’t have any social life outside of me. He had many acquaintances and colleagues that he hung out with occasionally, but he’d never introduced me to anyone he called a friend.

In fact, Khit rarely talked about his time in school. I knew about his childhood up until his early teens, and I knew about his life after he quit medical school to become a literature professor. But there was a huge gap in between that always seemed off limits—his teenage years to his early twenties. I didn’t know anything about that time period.

He is my best friend and roommate from college,” was all he said.

When he didn’t say anything else, I tried to pry more out of him. “What’s his name? Why haven’t I met him?”

“His name’s Mil. He’s shy and very introverted. Doesn’t feel comfortable meeting new people, which is why you haven’t met him.”

“But I will eventually, right? You know all of my friends, so it’s only fair that you introduce me to yours. Unless you’re ashamed of me.”

I knew it was dirty to play the guilt trip, but it worked.

He sighed. “You know I’m not ashamed of you. I promise you’ll meet him, all right?”

Khit did not seem happy at all to say this, and he also seemed to be getting agitated.

I did not want to ruin a perfectly good night, so I knew it was time to drop the subject. “It’s beautiful here.”

He grabbed onto the opportunity to shift gears. “Yes, Mil said this area is nice and private. No one will catch us.  And if someone comes along, I’ll sense them in time for us to leave.”

Well, I supposed that was the highlight of having a boyfriend with supernatural powers.  I allowed myself to relax, looking out the window.  We were driving right on the sand, and the waves were about five feet away from the car.  He parked and reached into the backseat to grab a plastic bag.  He plopped it into my lap.

“Go ahead and change.  I’ll stand watch outside.”  He left the car light on and took a flashlight out for himself.

As I was seated in the car, it took me awhile to maneuver my body out of my dress and into the jeans and black V-necked shirt that had been prepared for me.  But somehow I managed.  When I stepped out of the car, Khit was already changed into a sleeveless, white T-shirt and black khakis.  He shoved his other clothes into the backseat of the car.

“Ready?”

I nodded, and he took hold of my hand.  We walked to the shoreline and sat, watching the waves slowly caressing the sand.  The moon was high in the sky, receding a bit from its previous fullness from just a few days ago.  The tide was high, and the waves almost came up to where we were sitting.

Khit looked at his watch and adjusted the flashlight a little higher.  “It’s almost time,” he said.

“Almost time for what?”  I frowned.  “Now will you tell me what—”

“Shh—“  He put his finger to his lips and gestured to the ocean.  “They’re here.”

Curiously, I focused my gaze back to the waters.  As the waves rode up, they brought with them, tiny slivers of silver that washed up on the sand.  Another wave.  The silver came up further, and even more of it came riding on the waves.  Amazed, I looked back at Khit.

“Grunion,” I said breathlessly.  “But I thought they stopped coming at the end of August.”

“Typically, yes,” he said.  “But in some parts, they still come in September.”

The grunion were silver, sardine-sized fish with backs that were tinted blue-green.  Every summer, grunion had a very unique mating ritual.  The females would ride the waves into the beach to deposit their eggs into the sand, as the males wrapped their bodies around the females to fertilize the eggs.  All along the southern Pacific coast, grunion runs would be held, where visitors could experience the phenomenon hands-on, first listening to a lecture and then going to the beach to actually see and touch the grunion.  It was a popular activity for tourists, but the problem with that was grunion became scared easily.  The more people around, the less likely the grunion would come.  I’d gone on a grunion run with Liana last summer, but because so many people had the same idea, only a few grunion had ended up coming.

But now, it was different.  The moon acted as a strobe light, illuminating the dance floor, as hundreds of silver bodies rose from the sea, waltzing through the sand.  They illuminated the beach with silvery sparkles of light, mixed with a ghostly bluish-green glitter.  This was what tourists dreamed of seeing, but most likely left the beach disappointed because they had been too loud.

I leaned down to observe closer but didn’t try to touch.  Watching the light play off the backs of these tiny, miraculous creatures was one thing, but touching them was another.  It seemed too invasive.  They were too occupied with their ritual to notice my presence, but if I would be disturbing them if I tried to touch them.

“How did you know I wanted to see this?” I asked Khit.

“Liana said you were disappointed last time,” he said.  “So I asked my friend at the aquarium, and he pointed me to this private beach.  It helps when there are fewer people.  The grunion hate when the ground is shaking.”

Together, we watched in silence for a few more minutes, and then Khit walked away, leaving me to continue to gaze in fascination.  As the fish began to head back into the deep, I waved goodbye to them.   Then I heard Khit call my name in a hoarse whisper.  He gestured me to go to him.  “There are more here.”

Quickly, I sped over to him.  He adjusted the flashlight, focusing it to where he wanted me to look.  I bent down, but the fish were not the only things illuminating the ground.  There were stones—all polished aquamarine, glinting with moonlight, and they were placed in a pattern of words.

I started reading it out loud.  “Will you—“  A shocked gasp escaped my lips, and I turned to face Khit.  Will you marry me?  That’s what the stones read.

Speechless, I watched as Khit got down on one knee and pulled out a ring.  “Caren,” he said, the most earnest expression I had ever seen on him.  “I love you, and I want to marry you.  Not because the yaojing have ordered us to do so.  Not because you’re needed for the final task to free my mother.  Not because of anything other than the pure reason that I love you.  It doesn’t have to be right away either.  So the question is, do you want to marry me?”

The blur of tears was already clouding my vision.  I didn’t need to think about this one.  True, I’d only been dating Khit for a month, and I’d only known him for about four months, but the choice was clear.  I loved him so much that it hurt sometimes, and that was all that mattered.  Silently, I knelt down in front of him and wrapped my arms around his broad shoulders in a tight embrace.

He returned the hug, but asked uncertainly, “Is that a yes?”

Laughing, I could only nod against his shoulder, too overcome to speak. He lifted me away from him, only to take the sparkling ring from its case and slip it on my finger.  It was a diamond surrounded by sapphires in the shape of a flower.

Unconventional, but I loved it, not only because he was the one to give it to me but because he remembered that I liked sapphires more than diamonds.

“I still wanted there to be a diamond,” he explained.  “Just to make it clear to all the guys out there that this is an engagement ring, and you’re off the market.”

Later, we sat embraced in each other’s arms, kissing and talking and admiring the midnight view of the ocean.

“So what do you think?” he asked.  “Was this a better idea than watching a movie?”

“Fine, you win this time,” I conceded with a slight pout, which was soon offset by a helpless laugh.  “Liana must have been in on this the whole time.”

“I wouldn’t have pulled it off without her,” Khit admitted.  “She was surprised I was thinking of asking you so soon, but then her excitement won out.”

My mood sobered, as the reminder of reality settled on my shoulders.  Although Khit said he wanted to marry me because he loved me, I knew we had to be married sooner rather than later because the yaojing leaders had ordered it.  Come summer, Khit’s mother, Julia, would be subjected to her last task.  If Julia succeeded in completing one more good deed for a human, she would be allowed to reunite with her husband, and Khit would have a happy home, something he hadn’t had since he was a baby.

But this last task somehow involved me.  And before the task took place, the yaojing leaders had dictated that Khit and I should be married.  I didn’t know what they would do if we didn’t follow orders, but the yaojing meant business.  There was to be no trifling with them.

“We’ll have to be married by the summer,” I said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a shiver that was caused more by my fear of the yaojing than by the chilly air.

Somehow, Khit read my thoughts.  “I meant what I said, Caren.  We will get married under our terms.  You decide the date, not them.”

It was sweet of him to say, but very unrealistic.  I would not disobey the yaojing if it meant ruining Julia’s chance of happiness.  “Your mother—”

“Forget my mom,” he said, and I glanced at him in disapproval, gently chiding him.  She was his mother, the woman who’d given birth to him.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” he said, slightly apologetic.  “I just—” He sighed.  “I hate that the yaojing leaders always get their way.  But you’re right, it’s too selfish of us to yield to something so small as the date of our wedding if it ruins Mom’s years of hard work.”

His hand played with mine idly.  “I thought of having a fake wedding just to spite the leaders, but they’ll know.  They always figure it out somehow.”

I knew he would rather get married sooner than later, and the only thing that made him feel bad about having the wedding before summer was that he thought I was opposed to the idea.  He thought I wanted to finish school first and get a job, which had been my intention until he came along.  But there was no reason I couldn’t do all that as a married woman.

“I want to get married before summer,” I said confidently.

He glanced at me sharply, trying to assess the truthfulness of my statement.  “You do?”

I nodded eagerly.  “I love you and your mother.  I want to see your family together again.”

“I don’t want you to do this out of duty,” he said.

I smacked his arm lightly.  “You didn’t let me finish.  I was going to say that isn’t the main reason I want to do this.  My reasons are entirely selfish.  I love you, and I want to be your wife as soon as possible.”

Hope lit up in his eyes.  “Really?”

“Yes.”  I smirked.  “Plus, it seems you won’t take things beyond kissing unless we’re married.  You and your old-fashioned ways.”

He smiled at that, but not in the way I wanted.  It was a wistful sort of smile.  “There’s a reason for that, but I’ll tell you on our wedding day.”  Then before I could ask anything further, he clasped my hands with both of his and proclaimed decidedly, “It’s settled then.  If you want to be married before summer, we will.”

“How does June sound?” I asked.  “Right when school ends?  It’s a nice compromise.  I’ll have graduated, and it’s before the intended meeting with the yaojing.”

“That sounds fine,” he said.

“Now, there’s just one more problem,” I sighed, realizing I had been thinking about his side of the family all this time and not about mine.  “It’s gonna take some effort explaining this to my parents.  It took a lot out of me to make them accept our relationship, first because professor-student relationships are kind of taboo, and second, because they think my grades will fall.  If I tell them I’m getting married, I’ll probably be disowned.”

Khit only smiled.  “You let me take care of that.  There has never been one human that I could not charm.”

That was true.  Everyone loved Khit.  Apparently, fox yaojing had super charisma powers, and I wasn’t kidding about that.  In my research of legends, it seemed that half foxes had this charisma especially.  It was what helped them reach high levels in society, exactly the way Khit had.

“I’ll leave them to you then.”  I leaned back, relaxing in his arms and looking into the dark fathoms of the ocean again.  It really was a magnificent sight, the moon reflecting on the shimmering waters.  Because I lived so close to the beach, I didn’t truly appreciate the view anymore.  But tonight I looked around me and remembered the first time I had come to school and visited the beach with Liana.  That same fascination I felt back then of how truly beautiful this scene was came flooding back now.

“It’s getting late,” Khit said.  But neither of us moved, both of us wishing to prolong this perfect moment.  Finally, I was the one to move first.  Taking up the flashlight, I held it out in the direction of the car.  The light glanced across the waters first, and I paused, thinking I had seen something out there.  A fin quickly darting towards the shore.

But no, it wasn’t possible.  My eyes were playing tricks on me.  A shark or a dolphin would not swim so close to land, and even if there was something out there, I wouldn’t be able to see it.  The light was too dim.

We started driving across the sand, and I looked out the window to wave goodbye to the night and the ocean.  Feelings of happiness and pure content were bubbling uncontrollably inside of me, and I wished I could just dance the night away.  Khit placed one of his hands on mine, steering with the other.  We exchanged smiling glances and couldn’t seem to take our eyes off each other.

I was the one to turn my head back to the dashboard first.  About to tell him to pay attention to his driving, my brows furled, as the headlights collided with an oncoming figure.  It was a slight girl jogging into the path of our car, completely oblivious that she was about to be hit, as her head was turned to glance backwards at the ocean.

“Khit, watch out!” I screamed.  He had already seen her, swerving to the side, just barely avoiding a collision.

We rushed out of the car to find the girl sprawled on the ground.  The first thing I noticed now was that she wasn’t wearing a stitch.  At the sound of Khit’s voice asking if she was all right, she picked herself up and ran away without a backwards glance.

Khit frowned, and I nudged his elbow, asking if we should go after her.  We hadn’t hit her, but still…

“She was naked,” I said.  “What if she’s in some kind of trouble?”

“I don’t think so,” he shook his head.  “She was probably just embarrassed that we caught her.”

“But she was naked,” I repeated.

He shrugged.  “Maybe she overheard my suggestion about skinny-dipping.”

I glared at him.  “Now is not the time to joke.  She could be hurt.”

Khit patted my hand reassuringly.  “Surfers change on the beach all the time,” Khit said.  “We just caught her at a bad time.  Anyway, we can’t catch up to her now.”

He was right, of course.  The girl was nowhere in sight anymore.  She was an extremely fast runner.  I just hoped she would get home before anyone else saw her.

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