Fiction

A DAY AT SEA

The world tilted and rocked until I thought last night’s Jim Beam would be back for a return engagement, so I tried to focus on the deck under my feet. That made things worse. I looked back up, watched the bluish horizon list on all sides like a giant tilt-a-whirl, and felt my stomach flip over. In reality, it was the boat that pitched and yawed and not the Pacific, over which we sped west, the motor’s roar rattling my skull.

The clouds were clearing, and the sun stabbed my eyes with daggers of light that bounced off the water from all directions. I lowered my shades from the top of my head to my face.

Jack looked around from the helm. “How’s our boy?” he yelled over the motor. We had departed San Diego Bay an hour ago and now there was no land in sight, much less any other boats. Jack liked his space.

Danni glanced over at me. She sat at the other end of the bench, sipping a Corona, the sun casting a sheen on her black skin. She smiled. After two years, the girl knew me.

“He’ll live,” she shouted back at Jack.

I wasn’t so sure.

“Well, all right,” Jack exclaimed. He killed the motor, and the world fell suddenly still, save for the gentle lapping of water against the boat’s hull. I looked around. We drifted on an expanse of rolling green glass. I sensed the immense depth beneath my feet, pressing back up against my soles.

Jack came back and popped the lid of the large cooler. I heard ice rustle as he reached inside, and up he came with a bottle of Glenlivet, two ice-choked tumblers, and one evil fucking grin.

“Oh no.” I shook my head and held up my hands to ward him off.

“Come on, boy-o,” Jack said, jiggling the tumblers in his big hand. The ice cubes clinked against the glass. “Little hair of the canine, what say?”

I looked at Danni for help, but she just smiled and shrugged. “You’re a big boy, David.”

“That’s right,” Jack agreed. “Besides, isn’t this why we came out here today—to party and relax?”

I understood. I hadn’t wanted to come out today after destroying that entire bottle of bourbon last night. But it was Saturday, and Danni didn’t get many weekends off from her job at the legal office. If I had bailed on this outing, she wouldn’t have thrown it in my face, because that wasn’t Danni. But our relationship might have suffered a hairline crack or two. Too many of those cracks could spell real trouble. I didn’t want to push it. Still, I didn’t have to drink.

What the hell.

“Okay,” I said, “hand it over.”

“Now you’re talking,” Jack said, his grin returning. He poured me three fingers, then served himself the same. Settling onto a cushioned seat, he set the bottle at his feet and leaned back. Sipped his drink and gave a satisfied sigh.

We sat in companionable silence and it wasn’t too long before the whiskey did its work and I felt human again. I glanced around at the smooth surface of the water, smelled the sea air, listened to the rhythmic murmur of the waves against the hull as I sipped my whiskey, and soon I was seeing things in a much better light.

At last, Jack said, “I’m thinking, later on, we might go to my place and throw a couple of steaks on the grill. Maybe I’ll give Carol a ring, see if she wants to join us.”

“Love Carol,” Danni said.

“Love steak,” I added.

Danni slapped me lightly on the thigh. “Somebody’s feeling better,” she said.

Jack drained his glass. “Another?”

Danni nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

“Sure,” I said.

Jack rose to tend to us. And a woman screamed.

We all looked toward the sound. About fifty yards off the port bow we spotted her. She thrashed and cried out, her wild eyes cast in our direction. In that split instant, the woman disappeared beneath the surface, then came up again, sputtering and choking. She shrieked at us, a desperate plea, a word or two, but it wasn’t English.

“Oh my God!” Danni yelled.

“What the fuck…” Jack muttered.

My sentiments exactly. What was she doing by herself way the hell out in the middle of nowhere? And without a boat nearby, no less. Then Jack cut short my thoughts in that direction when he kicked off his deck shoes and dived without ceremony over the edge and into the waiting sea. An expert swimmer, he shot like an arrow toward the drowning woman. Danni and I rushed to the port side and peered after him. As we watched, the woman went under again.

“David,” Danni moaned.

“I know,” I said. “Jack will save her, don’t worry.”

Will he? I wondered.

The woman burst to the surface again, splashing and flailing in a furious struggle to remain topside. She screamed at the heavens.

“Look!” Danni pointed. “He’s reached her.”

She was right. We saw Jack’s arm encircle the woman’s torso.

Then she went under a third time, taking Jack with her.

I wasn’t too worried at first, knowing Jack would bring her back up any second. Except he didn’t.

“David!” Danni cried.

All at once, Jack broke the surface, his ruddy face now bloodless. His fists hammered the water as he whipped and thrashed about. “David! Help me! Help me!”

Danni screamed.

“Stay here,” I said, kicking off my sneakers.

She seized my arm. “No, David, don’t—”

“Just stay here, goddamn it!”

I leapt over the side. Nowhere near as good a swimmer as Jack, I could still hold my own. I struck out toward the sound of his screams and at last, reached out and grabbed his flailing wrist. But it tore away from me at once as something with gargantuan strength dragged Jack under.

I submerged. And when my eyes adjusted, I came close to gasping seawater into my lungs from shock at the dreadful sight before me. My brain at first struggled to register what my eyes were seeing, but once it did, I knew it was all too real.

The woman who had been pretending to drown now held Jack in a deadly lover’s embrace, and where her legs should be a thick greenish fish’s tail swept lazily back and forth. Rising into focus below her was another creature, its face flat and scaly, with teeth long and sharp and eyes a dull merciless yellow. It snapped its jaws.

Then the face of the one whose arms coiled around Jack rippled and morphed until it became like the other’s. Jack reached for me in desperation, his fingers brushing mine, but the thing pulled him down into the depths below. The last I saw of him were the bubbles produced by his screams. And his eyes. Horrified. Pleading.

I fled in mindless panic.

My frightful swim back to the boat is a nightmare blur. I do remember the other one grasping at my toes as I swam and screamed, its cold rough fingers wrapping around my ankle as I clambered up the ladder.

I left California soon after. Couldn’t stand being near the ocean. Now I live in the Midwest, surrounded by trees. I don’t think about what happened much anymore. At least not consciously.

In my dreams, when Jack reaches for me, he doesn’t miss. He seizes my wrist, and I’m dragged down into darkness, screaming, though my lungs are bursting. I glimpse Jack’s face in the last of the light. In his terror, he has gone insane.

And he’s grinning at me.

***

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