The first sign of trouble was the fact that someone had cut a hole in Mike's chair. He came back to Florida from his first semester at Penn State to find that his parents had left his room untouched, except for the good swivel chair he'd failed to bring with him to the dorm. There was a vertical slit crudely cut in the back.
Mike went down stairs to grab lunch -- it was already afternoon -- and ask. There was a note from his mom saying, "We've been called away all weekend for an extra sales shift. Christmas shopping blitz, y'know. but we'll have a little reunion on Sunday night. Help yourself to anything in the fridge."
In the fridge was a lot of seafood. Mike blinked at the shrimp and trout and lobsters on offer. The spicy catfish smelled really good, and they were out of milk. He shrugged and tried the fish. It was great! Something was a little off about the kitchen, though, and he eventually noticed it: the same kind of slit had been cut into every chair in the room.
Something was jabbing him in the back. As he twisted around to look, something bumped against him. He caught sight of a rubbery grey triangle stuck to his back. Confused, he tugged at it but it wouldn't come off. His shirt, too, had been slashed to make way.
"What the heck?" he said. Had his parents glued this thing to him as a prank? And why? He pushed his plate away and went upstairs to his bathroom mirror. As he was walking, though, a heavy weight seemed to stretch out behind him. It banged into the wall and he staggered the rest of the way up so he could see. It felt like he was being chased! But the thing hanging on him was attached to his spine, pressing down over his pajama pants. Grey, sleek, and still growing, with a pair of nubs on either side at its tip. Mike panicked. He ran into the bathroom and looked at his reflection. Normal everywhere else, but the new appendages on his back were plainly visible.
What could have done this to him? In his room he rummaged for any clue. He wasn't drugged or something, was he? There was nothing unusual on or around his bed. He hadn't finished unpacking yet, so he dug into his backpack. Just a few books and clothes... wait. Why did he have a textbook on marine engineering? He was going for a mechanical engineering degree. And why had he brought three pairs of swim trunks? He didn't even own that many.
That long thing behind him had grown so much that it was bumping into his nightstand from several feet away. He turned to reach for it, staggered off-balance, and got his first good look at what it had become: a grey, fluked tail belonging to a dolphin.
He fainted onto his bed.
He woke up groaning, laying on his back. Something was wedged painfully under him. He rolled sideways and went wide-eyed as he recalled what it was. "A fin! A dorsal fin!" It had bent from being squashed beneath him. His new tail was caught under one leg and was aching from the awkward position he'd been in. So both of these were real. He shook his head and reached for his phone, but in the process he squashed his dorsal fin again and winced. Until he got cured... un-cursed, or whatever, he needed a better solution. He sat up instead. He still had the sight of his tail between his legs, propping him up like an awkwardly placed pillow. Mike fumbled with the covers to escape from bed and still ended up dragging a blanket off with his tail's big flukes. "So somehow I'm part dolphin?" He blinked. "The chairs!"
He grabbed his chair and tried to sit in it, carefully threading his fin through the back. It fit, and his tail went through the open space beneath the backrest. It was like his parents had anticipated this and cut the hole.
Except, on closer inspection, it wasn't a ragged gash in the fabric now; there was stitching as though it had been manufactured that way. Downstairs he now saw the same thing, like someone had snuck in and repaired everything to dolphin standards. Back upstairs, after bumping his tail three times on the walls, he was starting to get the hang of walking again. That crazy huge tail didn't just dangle like a rope from above his butt; it was built to stick out and point at maybe a 30 degree angle away from down, and it tended to flick farther back as he moved. If he tried to just hold it downward it kept bumping into the backs of his legs, and threw his balance off.
It was afternoon now and the house was quiet. Mike called up a friend to ask, "Are you back in town yet? Something weird is going on."
"What kind of weird? And no, I've got one more exam and then my flight home is tomorrow."
Mike hesitated. "Let me send you a photo." He took a picture of his own tail, adding, "Can you see this?"
His friend said, "You bought a costume?"
"No. It's... it's just attached."
A laugh came through the phone. "You shouldn't drink while jet-lagged, Mike. See you in a few days, okay? I've gotta go." He hung up.
Mike squeaked in frustration, then put one hand to his mouth. "What did I just do?" Then he saw his phone's background image, which had changed from the picture he'd chosen, a cool bridge, to a seascape.
Who was pranking him, and how? He looked himself over again in the mirror and found that the rubbery grey skin was spreading, covering much of his back between his tail and fin, like paint. He peeked out of a window and nothing strange had happened outside; no flying saucers zapping people and no genies shooting spells, to explain what was going on. But he was still changing, and even as he watched, he could see the grey spread a little farther. Was he about to shift species completely? He had to find water!
The neighborhood had a pool. Not saltwater but it'd do, and the temperature was still in the 70s outside. He grabbed one of his supply of swimsuits and fumbled to pull the thing on. He soon discovered it was meant to fasten with velcro over and around his big tail, as though it'd been made for one.
He went down to the neighborhood pool, then froze with worry. An elderly couple was already swimming there, and they'd just spotted him.
The grandpa said, "Hey there, Mike. Feeling all right?"
"Uh. You don't notice anything...?"
The lady with him said, "We heard about that lab accident, and the newscaster says it's not contagious."
The lady looked at him with confusion. "That's right; they did say some people got partial amnesia. Maybe you'd better go lay down, dear."
Mike muttered something and retreated back to his house. He grabbed his phone and flopped down on the bed, then winced. The fin again! And his tail! He squeaked in annoyance. Then he paused and tried squeaking and whistling again. He'd never been good at whistling, but now it came easily to him. He turned to one side and fiddled with his phone to look up mysterious dolphin lab accidents.
There were now articles about a chemical spill affecting the water supply across the city for several hours, a few days ago, causing changes in everyone who'd bathed in it at the wrong time. But that was nonsense! If he'd been in some terrible accident then he'd be in a hospital now, and certainly not left alone. Yet his parents were just at the family store, handling holiday shoppers. He picked up their note again from his nightstand and read, "We're going to be busy all weekend talking with the lawyers. If you have to be part dolphin, then that company is going to pay your way through college!"
It had changed on him! This wasn't just amnesia; something was wrong with, well, everything. He called up his friend again and said, "Have you heard anything about a chemical accident?"
"Yeah, wow. I don't know whether to be worried for you or jealous."
"But... but I just talked to you and --"
"You told me about the accident, yeah. We'll meet up when I'm in town, okay? I'll buy you a fish sandwich."
"Ha ha. See you." Mike hung up. It was as though history was revising itself. When he put the phone down he saw that his hands were now starting to go the same way, turning grey as though he were wearing a pair of rubbery gloves. Was he going to lose his hands and end up as a full animal? The latest version of reality said no, but who knew what it'd be next? He called his parents, but they didn't answer.
He started filling the bathtub just in case he needed to be in water soon. Or... He was fidgeting in near-panic now. Back to the pool? His tail waggled up and down. It seemed like a relatively safe place to be, and like nobody was going to notice he was a freak, so maybe. He hurried back out of the house to rejoin the old couple there.
He stepped into the water around the time the slick dolphin skin covered his back and had spread down his arms like a t-shirt. The water felt amazing. He flipped around in the deep end and found that he seemed to pivot around his dorsal fin, making him able to turn and spin with more agility than he'd ever had as a normal human. There wasn't enough room to get up to a good speed, but with a single vertical stroke of his tail he darted all the way across the pool, caught the shallow hand-rail, spun around it and whipped back into the depths. All the while, the water rippled along his changed skin and fed him subtle information about its currents. It was like seeing a trail of his own past movements even after his visible wake had faded. And sonar; was he going to get sonar as a new sense? Maybe after his head changed, if it did.
Mike pulled himself out of the water; he'd gotten carried away. He looked at the elderly couple to make sure he hadn't gone through some new history revision. "Uh, ma'am? You know that industrial accident that's been turning people partway into dolphins?" He hoped it was still "partway" according to their memories.
The lady said, "Yes, dear? What about it?"
"Uh... You haven't heard of anyone losing their minds from it, have you?"
"Oh, no, the lawyers at least have been very clear about that not being a threat."
Mike let out a relieved breath, at least for now. He'd also been transported to the parallel universe where disasters weren't called "issues". He said, "Thanks. Just worried."
He grabbed his towel and lay down on one of the reclining pool chairs to rest. Ow, his fin and tail again! His dorsal fin was caught between the plastic slats. Mike grumbled and sat up on the recliner. "I'm never going to be able to use chairs normally again."
"At least you have swimming," said the man.
"There's that, yeah. Need to invest in more swimsuits and towels." He waggled his towel and noticed that it had changed from a plain green one to a beach design. His hands were fully changed, along with his whole arms, chest and legs now. His feet had started to reshape, the toes sticking together. The good news was that his legs didn't seem to be shortening, or getting stuck to his tail or anything. So the truth of the matter, currently at least, was that he was going to end up keeping his hands and everything.
Back in the house, he looked around again to be sure. The fridge was still stocked with fish, but there were more 'phinny accents to the place than he remembered. Seashell wall paper in the upstairs bathroom for instance. He read the note once more: "...Busy all weekend talking with the lawyers again. You'd think the class action settlement would be done after a year, but no."
A year? So now, this accident happened a while back, and his family had adapted. That helped explain the chairs looking like they'd been bought with these fin slits. He grumbled, "Whoever's doing this, pick an explanation and stick with it!" At least there was nothing in there about him changing further. He went upstairs warily to see what else was new.
The upstairs had been remodeled. His bathroom had doubled in size to include an oversized tub, and there was a whole stack of fluffy dolphin-patterned towels. He rolled his eyes at the unnecessary expense. But he could imagine his mom going overboard a year ago, thinking that if their son was going to be a dolphin he was going to have everything he needed to be comfortable, and it was all going to be on-theme. He finished drying off and changed clothes.
In his bedroom, which was smaller now due to the bathroom, his bed hadn't changed other than the sea-green sheets. So he was still meant to stay off his back, or at least nobody had found a good solution. He normally tossed and turned enough that trying to lay down carefully over a fin slot in a bed wasn't practical. The closet held a whole array of swimwear and pool toys... and there was a little display of a swim trophy he'd apparently earned last year. That wasn't even fair! He'd been on the swim team in reality, but now he suspected his classmates had resented him for suddenly getting a massive advantage without even trying. He shook his head. "Maybe I'm on a swim scholarship now at Penn State. Or I'm banned from the team and we're suing for discrimination. One of those Tidal IX complaints, maybe."
This was his life, now. He sat down carefully at his desk, threading his tail and fin through the chair, and checked the news. The "accident" was now supposedly a year ago, yeah, and the initial media hoopla was over. But there was a recent Hollywood movie starring the transformed people, and he had an e-mail from someone claiming to be a talent agent looking to hire a transformed swimmer for an upcoming film.
"Oh wow. I could be an actor just based on my new looks?" He replied that he was definitely interested, but CCed his parents. When they got back, he'd have to tell them everything, even if they thought he was crazy for remembering how things had been just yesterday. He hoped that they remembered.
For now, he was stuck like this, but it didn't seem too bad. Fish, swimming, a scholarship, and probably his dad talking about "new opportuna-ties". Mike groaned in advance. He eased himself onto the bed and lay on his front. Daydreams came to him about what might've caused all this, but nothing really explained it. He fell asleep still wondering.
He woke up that night groaning, aching, sprawled at a weird angle and tangled up in bedsheets. It took him a few moments to remember that he was sharing the bed with a long, fluked tail, and that the bump behind him was his dorsal fin. But how had he managed to end up sore while laying on his front? He propped himself up and felt the heavy breasts hanging from his chest.
His yelp came out as a high-pitched whistle of alarm. He rolled over and tumbled to the floor, landing on his poor tail. "Oh, come on!" He stood up wobbling because he now had to contend with his balance being off on both sides. He'd gone to bed wearing one of his many pairs of swim trunks and a fin-compatible t-shirt, and he was still dressed that way, but the shirt was definitely a tight fit now. And the trunks... He gulped and peeked down. Not much visible there, but it was all internal for dolphins anyway, right? He looked into his dresser and saw mostly the same wardrobe as before, but his collection now included some alarmingly large bras. Had these retroactively happened a year ago too?
Downstairs. The note again. It was mostly the same wording about a class action lawsuit, but it was now addressed to "Michelle". There was a postscript from his mom, too: "Really, you've been a girl for long enough without admitting it to yourself. It's time to go out and get yourself a skirt or two, at the very least. Save the receipt and I'll pay you back."
This imaginary other Mike had had a year to get used to the change, but really he'd had less than a day. On the other hand, wow, "Michelle's" senior year of high school must have been hell.
He hadn't changed much further, from what he could tell from blushing into the bathroom mirror. His hands were webbed and his fingernails had vanished, but other than grey skin and a faintly beaky nose, he didn't have a dolphin's head. His feet didn't have toes anymore; it looked like he was wearing skintight grey socks and could only flex his feet along a single joint where his toes should begin. His tail was still huge and distracting, nearly down to his feet when it hung flat. It weighed heavily along his back, drawing his attention to how his hips had widened. In hindsight they'd done that a little yesterday when the tail came in, but now they were obvious. "Well, great," he said, trying to stay calm and breathe normally. He'd just been forced into a weird new role, and he'd have to deal with it, unless reality snapped back to how it'd been -- or changed even more.
He yawned, still worn out from dealing with all the changes. It was nearly midnight and he had a whole second day alone. He'd cope with all this better after some rest, or better yet he'd wake up to find everything was back to normal. He went back to bed... and couldn't get comfortable. Squashing his fin and tail wasn't a good option, and he was going to need a better arrangement if he was going to lay on his front. Maybe on his side? The curve of his lower hip kept distracting him. He sighed squeakily. He rearranged his pillows, twisted around, and shut his eyes.
Of all the things to give him trouble after being turned into a dolphin-girl, his bed was the worst! But hey, if he was fated to stay like this, there were others in the same boat. Maybe he could be the one to invent something better. "Fin problems," he muttered, and drifted off to dream of reefs and tides.
When he woke up, awkwardly propped up on one side, his parents had slipped a note under the door. He got out of bed and looked into the mirror with dread. Then, with a little relief. He was still part dolphin, and his shirt was tented by his considerable chest. But nothing else had changed, so far as he could tell. He thought back through his memory of the changes, and recalled what he'd just been through. "I'm still me," he thought. "Even if I have to be this, now."
He took a deep breath and read the note. The world seemed to have changed again, a little. It read: "Michelle, come downstairs when you're awake. We have to apologize, because we made a very poorly worded wish. The good news is that we've been informed there's a lot of money in it."
"A wish!" he said. So his parents got involved in some kind of magic? In a way it was reassuring to hear that it was their fault, and not something he'd done. They definitely had some explaining to do.
Michelle took a deep breath and a long look in the mirror, then pulled on a pair of fish-styled pajamas before heading downstairs. She still had family, anyway. And when she saw that his dad was a shapely dolphin-woman next to a suddenly buff and male mom, Michelle laughed. This revised reality was going to be interesting, at least.