This was supposed to be his Honeymoon.
Graham sat on the bare metal seat... a slab, really... and tried to pass the time. The distant sound of ocean water on metal did little to sooth his nerves, though it had done so quite well above-deck.
Resting there in the sterile, stifling cell within the bowels of that ship gave Graham plenty of time to reflect on the events that had somehow lead him here. It was supposed to be a vacation. Happiness. Carefree screwing around and actual screwing and little else.
"Graham 'n Sam" was the official title the two of them had been given by friends. Nobody could figure out how to successfully combine the two into one ubername like "Bennifer", which he was thankful for.
Sam. Beautiful Samantha. Despite what Graham's mother had said about her nose being too big for her face, her ass being too big in general, and her haircut being "kind of dykey, don't you think" he knew the criticism came out of fear of losing her only son to some strange woman. Under any other circumstances, the two generous, kind, and low-maintenance girls could've been best friends.
Sam had bought an entire wardrobe for the cruise. When they were boarding the massive ship Graham considered the fact he might be arm-in-arm with the wrong woman. It was as if he'd somehow engaged in some cosmic square dance that had switched his frugal, casually dressed Sam with some flowered tropical goddess.
Her ass was a bit big, though. That's the reason she and Graham had fought the night before. She had it in her head to wear some floss-like number to the ship's pool, and he had vehemently disapproved. When she said no one would even give her a second look, Graham absent-mindedly stated that it was hard to miss. Then it was as if some unseen bell signaled the first round of a cage fight.
He had done quite well to avoid such pitfalls leading up to this disaster.
Now, he was sitting in the cell. He lost track of the time after a few hours piled up, but he had the distinct feeling that morning had come.
Morning. Sam would have been missing all night, then. If she had turned up at any point since Security dragged him down there, they surely would've come back to give him the good news.
"Guess what! It turns out you didn't kill your wife after all! Our bad!"
He couldn't really blame them. If he had heard a newlywed couple engaged in a shouting match as loud as theirs... if that new bride had then disappeared completely from the ship... he would be pointing the finger just as fervently as anyone had pointed to him.
"Hey!" an unfamiliar voice called down the corridor leading the security station.
"Hey?" Graham called back.
A pudgy little man in a pair of palm tree shorts and flip-flops hustled into the room as if he were outrunning a fire. His face wore a look of concern mixed with the half-smile of someone about to deliver good news.
"C'mon, let's get you out of here!"
"What? Listen, I don't want to get into any more trouble than I'm already in."
The pudgy man seemed to ignore Graham's words and busily began searching a nearby desk. Important-looking papers spilled from the desk's surface, and the pudgy man began emptying out drawers.
"Stop that!" Graham was now standing, clutching the cell bars. The metal was so frigid that they stung his worried, over-heated flesh.
Finally, the man rooted out a ring of keys and started toward the cell.
"It's okay, trust me. One of the guards sent me."
"I... I don't understand..."
"Good, then that's two of us!"
Within moments, the proper key was located and the cell door was open. The first thing Graham wanted to do was hug this strange little man, but his lack of shirt and sunburn made for a powerful deterrent.
"I'm Glenn." the man thrust out his hand, holding it there stubbornly until Graham seized it.
"Graham. Seriously, though. What's going on?"
Glenn turned back down the corridor and hustled away, causing Graham to shuffle along and keep pace. The imaginary fire was apparently behind them, now.
"So you're the guy they thought killed his wife?"
"Yeah, did you find her? Is she okay?"
"Ah. God, sorry, kid. I should've said right away..."
Graham stopped, thrusting a hand out against the corridor wall for support.
"She's not... is she... I mean, IS SHE OKAY?"
Graham watched as the strange little man's festive shorts bobbed away, down the passage and around a corner.
"No, kid. No."
The voice echoed through the small space and rattled sharply in Graham's ears. For a moment the young man felt as if his heart was going to burst. It was a cold, sick sort of feeling that made his blood feel thick and sluggish.
Graham's estimate had been close, but not entirely correct. When he emerged from below deck, the sky was still dark, a seemingly infinite canvas of sparkling pin-pricks. It probably was morning, but well before dawn.
Glenn was nowhere to be seen, and Graham caught himself slipping on the rain-slicked wooden deck. At least it appeared to be rain. He hadn't heard any storms passing during his incarceration.
"Kid!" called a voice from above. Glenn was already a floor above him, calling down from over the rails. "Move it, kid! We have to get higher!"
Graham instead looked out over the water. There was nothing around for as far as the eye could see, despite the fact they were supposedly going ashore in light of the "suspected murder".
He walked to the rail and cast his gaze into the water. It was astoundingly still for open ocean, save for the occasional rise and fall of its green glass surface... like the swelling chest of a contented dreamer. He felt the strange desire to try walking across its near perfect surface.
"Get away from the fucking rail!!" Glenn screamed from on high. It was like the voice of God if God were a tiny, doughy accountant-type in his late forties.
Graham didn't break from staring at the water. He couldn't, really. It was a bit like looking into an Escher drawing... a fascinating image that fixed your attention and dared your mind to make sense of it.
Samantha. Beautiful, short black hair, her wonderful nose.
There she was.
Below the surface. Staring up at Graham with a blank, pale expression. She stayed less than an inch below the water and would not breach that boundary. Her eyes were wide, her parted lips burned by salt.
Wasting little time, Graham pulled his shoes off and began climbing the metal barrier between them. At the precise moment he kicked off from the ship, he felt the sensation of falling come to a sudden and unwelcome halt. A hand had worked its way around his belt, and now that hand... whoever it belonged to... was the only thing keeping him from rescuing his one true love.
"Shit!" came a deep, jarring voice behind him. It clearly wasn't Glenn, "Help! Help me pull this dipshit in!"
Graham slid across the wet deck, face down, after a series of unknown persons with grasping, groping digits reeled him up like a prize-winning catch.
"Sam!" Graham screamed as he struggled to get to his feet, only managing to slide and thrash on the slick surface, "I have to get to her!"
Graham's eyes moved up, up, up, taking in the sight of the person who had caught him in mid-air. He was tall. Very tall. Black, muscular, wearing a security uniform minus the over shirt. His white t-shirt was stained with sweat around the neck and armpits, along with red smears across the chest.
"Fuck you!" Graham lashed out in a voice that was quickly becoming hoarse, "Fuck you, I had her!"
The tall man offered his hand to Graham, who refused to accept it and instead slowly managed to stand of his own volition.
"She's dead." the tall man said flatly. It was clear he was neither surprised nor particularly concerned about this information.
Graham made a valiant try at weaving around the tall man, only to be placed in a strong, sweat-drenched headlock.
"Look, you asshole!" the tall man dragged Graham back to the railing and angled his face toward the water once again, "Take a good look and see what's out there!"
Graham's eyes once again met Sam's. He could see her porcelain face, her shoulders, and her breasts held back by that damned bikini top. He chest was motionless, and while her eyes followed Graham, they did not blink.
Next to her, about two feet away, another face. Nearby, another. Then another. As Graham's eyes flicked across the shimmering surface, he caught the blank visage of what must've been hundreds of people. All pale, motionless, staring from less than inch beneath the surface.
"See?" the tall man dragged Graham back again, still holding his head in an implausibly solid vice grip.
"What..." Graham fell to the deck once again as he was released, "What's happening...?"
Sitting there, dumbfounded, Graham studied the people around him. The tall man, Glenn, and a handful of others. Two men nearby stepped in front of a young boy as Graham met the child's gaze. Everyone... all of them... seemed afraid of him.
"Not a fucking clue," the tall man answered, once again offering his hand, "I'm Shawn. I know you got blamed for shit you didn't do, and none of this makes sense, but we have to go higher. Now."
There was a single-file line up the staircase, which was just as wet as the deck below. As Graham clutched the banister, it seemed an awful lot like the entire ship was covered in a spray of salt water.
Shawn lead the group, and moved much like a military man. His boot-steps fell like thunder on the metal stairs, and his cadence resembled that of a hundred soldiers on the silver screen.
The group didn't stop until they reached the highest point of the metal hulk. Halfway up, Graham asked a series of questions that seemed to fall on deaf ears. He had found himself in the exact center of the group, which seemed no accident as it prevented him from going back.
"Alright. Everyone's on watch. Nobody sleeps. Not until we get our heads around this thing."
Shawn spoke a lot like those movie soldiers, too.
"Hang on a sec, who died and left you in charge?" one of the two men who had shielded the boy took a step forward. He wore a Hawaiian shirt and cargo shorts, his skinny legs descending to a pair of neon yellow flip-flops.
"Uh, everybody," the man next to him snickered, "Everybody died."
"I'm sorry," Shawn crowded the Hawaiian shirt guy, making it very clear that he was about a head taller, "I think I'm the one with the security badge. That gives me authority over you and your... brother? Lover?"
Shawn backed away and put his hands in the air, "Hey, I'm not one to judge."
"Brother," said Hawaiian shirt, "And thank you for thinking my standards would be that low."
"Well!" the brother clucked his tongue, "Someone's not getting any tonight."
Between them, the young boy turned red and put his head in his hand. Clearly, he had been through this sort of embarrassment many times before.
"Oh, shut... the fuck... up!" Graham's voice was hoarser than ever.
"Watch it-" Shawn started.
"I said shut the fuck up!!" Graham reiterated, taking a threatening step toward the incredible behemoth, who chuckled.
"Who the fuck are you people, what the fuck is going on, and why the fuck is my fucking wife out in the God damned water?"
"TELL ME RIGHT NOW."
"I understand you're upset," the Hawaiian shirt cleared his throat nervously, "Confused, too. We're all upset and confused. Truth be told, none of us know what's happening. I wish I could tell you everything. Fuck, I'd love to! The fact is the whole thing is a fucking joke."
"And you are..." Graham set his jaw and shot the man an icy stare.
"Kenny. This is my brother, Jack... and his kid, Miles. Dude, I'm only here because Jack's wife is a pants-suit power-bitch who cancelled her vacation to climb the corporate ladder."
"Kenny, 'Bitch' is a bit strong," the brother, Jack, interjected, "She's just not into the whole 'tropical beach' and 'having fun' thing, and..."
Jack caught a look at Graham's expression, grim and full of suppressed rage.
"Well okay, we'll just go with bitch." he took a step back behind his brother.
"Your wife was the first one to go missing." Shawn was now standing some distance away, arms folded, looking out over the water into the infinite horizon, "The first one we noticed, anyway. Probably not really the first one."
Shawn unfolded his muscular arms and leaned on the lofty railing. He hadn't seemed the type to show any sign of weakness, but now it seemed as if that horizontal cylinder was the only thing holding him upright.
"One here, one there, no... we didn't notice. Then they started showing up again... just faces under the water. Looking up at us. A few guys dove in after them, all men. They hit the water with these big splashes, like kids doing cannonballs, but after that the water was undisturbed. They went under and didn't resurface. Everything just went scary-still. Like Alice going through the mirror."
"Looking-glass." Jack added before Kenny's fist met his shoulder with a solid thud.
"We're a ghost ship," Glenn bopped forward and took some imagined stage, "There was a boat years ago where everyone disappeared and nobody was found ever again. Stuff like that happens. Nobody believes it, but it does, and now we can all see it's true."
"No such thing as ghosts." Shawn didn't leave his station at the railing, "No such thing. No way."
"Well it's just a theory." Glenn conceded.
"So again, you're saying she's dead." Graham felt his blood go thick again.
"A ghost." Glenn nodded.
Graham stormed toward Glenn and thrust a finger into the little man's meek, double-chinned, mustachioed face. "Don't you fucking say that!" he growled.
"Everybody calm down," Jack clearly envisioned himself as some sort of peace-maker. This was probably role he'd been thrust into due to his brother's lack of tact, "We're all in the same boat, here. Hey... the same boat. Wow, I just got what that means."
In his defense, Graham took a few deep breaths and did manage to collect himself.
"Where are we headed?" Graham approached Shawn at the railing.
"What do you mean? Where are we going? Back home, or what?"
"We're adrift. The engines are jammed."
"Jammed? With what?!"
"With who. There's a body wound up in there... blood all over the place... it's fucking sick."
"We're moving, though. Obviously, we're moving. Look, I can see the wake!"
"Yeah, we're moving at a good clip. Sideways. I don't know if you've ever been on a cruise before, but speaking as an expert I can tell you that shit isn't common."
"So radio for help."
"You have a lot of old fucking ideas. What do you think we've been doing up here, jerking off?"
"For all I know, yeah."
Shawn chuckled again. It was the sort of laugh that seemed targeted more at Graham's ignorance than his wit. The laugh that comes before someone tries to turn your head around 360 degrees.
"Okay, okay, we tried the radio and someone answered. This gruff motherfucker, like an old sea captain or some shit. Like that guy who gets eaten in 'Jaws', barking back at us to calm down and that help was on the way."
"Ah," Graham sighed, relaxed a bit, "At least there's that."
"You'd think so, but I got the feeling something wasn't right about this clown. He's all grizzled and corny as fuck, it's just too on the nose, you know? So I just got this crazy fucking idea and I ask the guy a question."
"I'm talking to him over this crackling shitty radio, and I ask him 'how many fingers are on the human hand'. I mean, I have no idea where this question is coming from, just this weird place in the back of my head that's bitching at me to ask."
"The line's quiet for the longest time. Just dead air... static and shit. Then this guy comes back on and barks out the answer."
"I don't understand."
"Neither did he. It. Whatever. Bastard didn't know how many fingers people have because it wasn't a person. It took a random guess. I just backed off the radio, all dumbfounded or whatever the fuck, and this guy... thing... is calling out to me. It's just going... 'Come back, Shawn'... 'Shawn, come back'... 'Come back, Shawn'... 'Do you want rescue or not'..."
The two men locked eyes. Graham's face had gone slack, as Shawn's brow knitted in concern and confusion.
"Never told the fucker my name."
Over the course of the following day, sleep came despite the urgings of the tall security official. There was no "getting their heads around" whatever had been occurring, and so one man took watch while the others let their frantic minds achieve some sliver of rest.
"So. Shawn, right? Do you think we're a ghost ship?"
Graham found himself sitting close to Shawn, if for no other reason than to hide from the blistering Sun. The man cast a substantial shadow. Graham was officially on watch, but his partner clearly didn't feel like sleeping.
"The guy, Glenn, you sent him for me, right?"
The two of them sat at the railing, legs dangling down over the drop to the next level. Shawn was absently kicking his feet, as if it was impossible for him to sit completely still.
"Yeah. Almost forgot, my bad."
"Don't worry about it. I'm just glad it crossed your mind at some point."
The two of them returned to their silent vigil, eyes fixed on the distance, waiting for any flash of light or sound of rotors which would signal the oncoming fleet of helicopters.
Neither of them would look down at the water. Not for a second.
"You ever read Odysseus?" Shawn eventually broke the chilling silence.
"The Odyssey, you mean."
"Shit," Shawn said through an exasperated sigh, "You're correcting me like that Jack asshole. Jackass. That's what I'll call him from now on. Anyway, I said Odysseus and I meant Odysseus, so fuck you."
"I've read it, yeah. Why?"
"That book... that's what got me out on the water. Grew up in the city, never seen a creek, much less an ocean. Then this teacher, Mrs. Broomes, she makes us all read that book. All the other kids were like, fuck it, you know? I cracked it a few times, figured I'd take a look... just see if anyone got killed or whatever."
"So it changed your life."
"Yeah. I read about that guy and I was like, he jabs out this huge Cyclops' eye like it isn't shit. I was a small kid... a little runt bitch... so that worked for me. I've read it a thousand times, since. Any time things get tough."
Silence once again overtook the two as a seagull called in the distance. Graham tilted his head to listen.
"Gulls. We're near land."
Despite the audible clue, there was no land mass in sight.
"Anyway, Odysseus had these things in it. Sirens."
"Ah," Graham was finally catching on to the meaning of this conversation, "Right. Girls out on the rocks, calling Sailors to their death."
"Right. I don't know. I'm just thinking about that, now. Like how dudes jumped in to save people, and they didn't come up. Like... how there's no women left here. Just a bunch of swinging dicks."
"You think whatever's out there... that it's trying to tempt everyone overboard?"
"Maybe. Fuck if I know."
Graham leaned back on his hands and, for the slightest passing moment, nearly searched the waves for Sam's beautiful, expressionless face.
"I always loved the water," Graham started relaying his own tale, "Grew up with my Dad out on a houseboat... Mom was in rehab, but not the drug kid. Physical therapy. He put her there."
"Thanks. Anyway, sure, I liked the ocean. Not sure about that, now. I'll probably develop a phobia. If we live. If anyone back home believes us and we're not locked away."
Both men turned suddenly as one of the other stirred in his sleep. It was an elderly man, dressed all in white with a fancy hat that now served as a crushed pillow. He'd obviously been a bit of a Don Juan among the blue-hairs.
The old man turned, turned again, then finally found comfort before dropping back into slumber.
"I used to make wishes," Graham was a shade quieter this time, "Actually, no, I don't know what you call it, but it wasn't wishing. I'd just stand by the water and pretend I was sailing little boats out into the waves. Any bad feelings, dark thoughts, anything I didn't like. I'd pretend I was putting it in a little ship and I'd send it off."
Graham twisted his neck, popped his back, and cracked his knuckles. The day had been long up to this point, and the night... the darkness... would only seem longer.
"But yeah, I don't think I like it anymore."
Suddenly, the loud clang of a heavy object against metal shook the two from their thoughts. The men who had been sleeping now stirred, in different degrees of alertness.
Another clang... more like a ping... something smaller.
A wet thud. The sound of an unknown object hitting cloth. With a sudden start, Kenny sat up and flung a dark, slick item across the deck. As he did so, he let out a choked, horrified scream.
"Motherfucker!" Kenny got to his feet, swatting at his colorful shirt as if it was on fire, "Motherfucker!!"
Shawn was already up and halfway to Kenny as Graham had begun forming the idea that something was wrong.
"What's going on? Speak up!" demanded the security guard, all semblance of his normal human conversation now gone.
Kenny could only point toward the offending item. A finger. A single, blue-green bloated finger that was lying on the wet floor about twenty feet away. The finger seemed to have been ripped from its source, exposing a knob of sickly, mustard-colored bone. It almost mockingly pointed right back at him.
"Shit." Shawn approached the digit as if it would explode.
"Look! Oh my God, look!" Glenn was pointing toward the sky, head upturned with a wide-eyed, pale mask of terror.
Swirling in the sky above them all was a cluster of seagulls. The churning mass gave the impression of a hundred feathered bodies circling a drain. They moved in unison. In an unending loop.
"They're so quiet..." Graham marveled.
Matter began to rain down upon the men. Fingers. Toes. Eyes, lips, bits of unidentifiable flesh with hair intact. Each gruesome mote fetid and lacerated by the small golden shears of a beak.
"Oh shit," Jack shrieked as he barely held himself upright in the putrid hailstorm, "It went in my mouth. Something went in my mouth."
"Downstairs!" Shawn ordered, though half the group was already ahead of him, "Down! Down!"
The rush back to the lower level was much less orderly than the trip up. In the place of a single-file line, the group now made a mad descent, pushing each other aside and vying for position as if only the man in first place would survive.
At the halfway point, Glenn lost his footing. With a slight bump from an unknown compatriot, his low, rounded forum rolled over the railing and fell free. There was only time for a single, slighted whine before he hit the lower deck with a crack. There, he remained crooked and motionless as crimson mixed with puddles of salt water.
The sound of falling debris had become a constant din, not unlike that of a sudden and violent hail storm. As the group entered the dining hall, the echoing clatter of meat and bone gradually grew sparse, then ceased.
"Oh my God," Jack finally piped up as silence once more engulfed them, "You killed him. You killed Glenn."
"Who, me?" Graham gestured to himself, then, using an entirely different finger, gestured toward Jack, "Fuck you, I wasn't even near him."
"Well I know what I saw."
"And I know where I WAS."
Jack turned to Kenny with a smirk and a raise of the eyebrows, but was met only with a cold look of disappointment.
"Don't even try, Jack. You're my brother, but I'm not covering up for you. If he says he didn't do it, and you say you saw him, I figure that probably means you shoved the poor bastard to his death."
Jack swept his arm around his son and lead the boy to toward the back of the room.
"I would never! C'mon, Miles. We don't have to associate with these people."
Shawn stood at the doorway, staring out into the oncoming darkness. Either he couldn't hear the spat that was going on within, or he no longer cared about keeping order among the group.
"Were those... was that..." the elderly man in white swallowed hard, "Jesus Christ, tell me those weren't people-parts..." His boney, spotted hands twisted at his already beaten hat.
"It doesn't want us to hide. It doesn't want us to live." Shawn was still facing out the door when he spoke, "It wants us down there, on the lowest deck. It wants us in the water."
"I don't care what 'it' wants," Graham tugged on Shawn's sleeve, guiding him around and into the room, "All that matters now is what we want, and I assume everyone here wants to go home."
"Right." Shawn seemed to be coming back from some far-off place deep within his mind, "I don't want to go wherever this ship is headed... Yeah, okay. Yeah. We're going home."
"How exactly are we going to accomplish that?" Kenny seemed sincere... or as sincere as he could get given the sarcastic tone in every word he uttered, "We don't have an engine, we're drifting sideways, and the radio only patches us through to Eight-Fingers Pete, the scary-ass Pirate. Even the birds hate us. BIRDS. We are on the shit-list of a kind of animal."
"There's one thing we have left." Shawn folded his arms and turned visibly cold. Stone-faced.
"No," Graham backed away, shaking his head, "No, you're not talking about... no."
"What?" Kenny barely whispered.
Shawn turned to the door again as the others stared hard at the back of his head, where a pulsating vein had now become quite pronounced.
The sunset cast an eerie streak of crimson through the door and across the room. Shawn's shadow now seemed like that of the towering Cyclops he'd mentioned.
"Red sky at night," Kenny grinned and threw his hands in the air, "Sailor's delight!"
No stone was left unturned. No cabin unopened, no emergency kit spared. When all was said and done, nothing remained that could be of any importance. First-aid items, flares, bottled water, even umbrellas and blankets to keep out of direct Sunlight.
"We're going to be too heavy," Jack dropped a full 24-pack of separate water bottles to the floor, "We can't take everything, we'll sink."
"Water is the most crucial thing." Shawn studied a fishing rod in his hands and wondered if they'd even be able to make use of it.
"We'll spread it out," Graham took a few bottles and set them on the floor in a pattern, "If we keep the weight distributed, we should be fine."
"That's nice," Shawn nodded, "I like that. You're a problem solver. Probably some kind of tech geek or something, right?"
"Bingo. I'm in IT." Graham made a typing motion.
"You're an it?" Miles spoke up for the first time since Graham had laid eyes on him, then laughed, "You looked like a dude to me!"
Graham shot the kid a smirk. This didn't seem like a good time to start an argument with a scared child. If there was ever a good time for that. Miles didn't seem scared... he looked more embarrassed and put out than anything else... but as a fellow wise-ass, Graham could spot the slight signs of fear.
"You're going to make a woman very, very tired and frustrated some day, kid."
"Heh. Yeah," the boy looked at his shoes and sighed, "I was talking to this blonde girl the other day, buuut... I guess that's not going to work out."
"She was the Cruise Director!" Jack seemed shocked and dismayed.
Kenny and Miles high-fived.
The faces were still there when the men began preparing their raft. The vibrant, orange thing seemed inappropriate given the situation. Being easily spotted was usually a good thing... but not now.
The people in the water... those faces... had rearranged themselves while the men hadn't been looking. Entirely different visages peered upward, never daring to pierce that boundary between ocean and air.
"This is a really fucked up idea." Graham noted.
"I don't know," Kenny had warmed to the premise rather quickly, "I think I'll feel better if we're in charge of our own fate. No more aimless drifting, just six tough motherfuckers with oars and elbow grease."
"I'm sorry..." the man in white suddenly made his presence known. Up until that moment, he'd been all but forgotten. "I can't do this."
"The fuck you can't." Shawn was his usual tactful self.
"I'm serious, now. I can't do this. I can't swim, and even if I could, I wouldn't be able to at my age. I'm not going down there with those people... I'd rather... I'd rather kill myself! It's like you said, I'm in charge of my own fate."
Shawn marched up to the old man and put one large, dark hand on his slim, alabaster shoulder.
"I don't leave men behind."
The old man in white hung his head and slumped a bit. It was as if insisting on saving his life was the ultimate insult to his personal dignity. He turned, walked slowly to a nearby bench, and sat down hard.
The others continued their work. The flares were stored in plastic baggies from the kitchen, and each member of the group stored at least one on their person. There was no telling what would happen... how far they would get... but there seemed to be ample time for precautions.
"I don't get why we don't bring food," Miles seemed to have found his voice, now, "I'm not eating a raw fish, even if we can catch any."
"Food'll go bad in the Sun, kid." Kenny took his ID from his wallet and tossed the rest to the deck, "Even if it doesn't, we're taking enough chances with all the fresh water." He replaced the wallet with a pack of gauze, then filled the rest of his pockets. The others followed suit.
A single scream brought them all back out of their thoughts.
The old man slumped off of the bench, onto the deck. There, he thrashed violently, his back arched as if he were wracked by extreme pain.
"Heart attack!" Jack called out, "He's having a heart attack! Someone do CPR!"
Graham was the first to the old man's side, and kneeling there he found a small cluster of discarded syringes. Before he could so much as lay a hand on the old man, Graham could see he was dead.
"What the fuck?" Shawn scooped up a syringe, careful not to prick himself or fracture the glass.
Graham cleared his throat and took a deep, heavy breath. He didn't have to take a closer look at the needles, he had already reasoned out the answer.
"FUCK." Shawn threw the syringe against a wall, shattering into a blizzard of moonlit shards.
"Well, I mean, it's actually for the best," Jack shrugged, "If you think about it, one less person means each of us has a better chance at surviving."
"Shut that guy up," Shawn growled, his eyes fixed on the old man's body, "Shut that guy up, Graham. You're my boy, you know I'm about to crack on that motherfucker."
"Come on," Graham got up, put his arm around Jack, and lead him away with Miles in tow, "Let's get back to work. Trust me. I'm his boy."
Kenny remained at Shawn's side, hands in pockets.
"If you decide to work my brother over, do me one favor."
"Avoid the face?"
"Actually I was going to say 'focus on the face', but I guess just play it by ear."
The trio of Graham, Jack, and Miles returned to filling the raft and their pockets. For a few moments, not a word was said. It seemed as if there had finally been some unspoken agreement against idle banter.
"You know," Jack immediately violated the agreement, "I'm really a nice a guy. It's just that I don't do well under pressure."
"It's true," Miles nodded, "He dressed up as a super-hero for my birthday one time, and got so worked up about it that he fell off the garage."
"It had JUST rained!" Jack snapped at Miles.
"It had just rained." He repeated to Graham.
Everything seemed to be in place when the remaining group lowered their raft into the water. Each of them half expected the thing to completely disappear once it hit the waves. If the people... things... below could subdue able-bodied victims, they could easily drag down the bobbing orange disgrace.
Yet there it sat, slowly rising and falling on the water, doing nothing it shouldn't.
Shawn was the first one down. Using metal ladder rungs built into the side of the vessel, he descended to the tethered raft with all the unflinching bravado the others had come to expect from him.
When Shawn's feet landed in the raft, again all involved expected it to quickly disappear with him aboard. Especially Shawn himself.
Moments of uncertainty passed.
"I think it's okay." Shawn called up to the others.
Graham was the next one down. Then Kenny. Jack still seemed a bit unsure as he stared over the railing at them. If there was ever a time for the men to disappear, he seemed to hope it would be now rather than after he'd boarded.
Slower than all the rest, Jack carefully descended, checking to make sure the raft was still there at every fifth rung.
Finally, it was time for Miles to join them. It had been unanimously agreed without a single word that the boy would be the last aboard. If indeed anything bad were to happen, it was necessary for him to have the best chance at avoiding it.
"You're doing great!" Jack called up as Miles approached, "Just keep going and don't look down!"
"The more you tell him not to look down, the more he's going to think about looking down, asshole." Kenny mumbled.
"Whoa!" Shawn blurted out as his attention snapped to the floor of the raft.
"What's going on?" Graham turned to Shawn, searching his down turned face for any sign of meaning behind the yelp.
As Miles' foot reached the raft's edge, it suddenly jerked to the side. Graham looked down to see several handprints rising on the floor of the raft. Palms, fingers, all pushing upward from below, moving in unison and sliding the raft from its proper location.
Miles hit the water, sending a salted spray into the faces of Jack and Kenny, who were in the midst of trying to catch him.
"NOOOO!" Jack shrieked, his voice disturbingly high, frantic, like the cry of an animal being flayed alive, "JESUS FUCK, NO!!"
The water went calm. The boy did not surface.
"Let go of me!" Jack struggled against Kenny's grip as the other two men rushed to restrain him as well, "My son! I have to get my son! Oh God! Ohhh GOODDD!"
Jack was dragged to the floor as the raft floated free, its tethers somehow loosened in the commotion. There, the man flailed as if possessed of some incredible super-human strength never before unleashed. He struck Kenny in the face, sending his brother reeling, and bit wildly at Graham's arm as he attempted a crude sleeper hold.
"The mast!" Shawn's eyes were wide, veins throbbing, any glimmer of logic completely washed from his face, "Lash him to the mast!!"
Graham loosened his grip on Jack's throat, though his hold hadn't been very solid to begin with. Similarly, Kenny rolled off of his brother and sat bolt upright.
The cry was frantic. Sharp. It was the boy.
"Miles!" Jack shouted, climbing to his feet with an exhausted gasp, "Miles, where are you?! Oh, thank you Jesus, oh he's alive..."
"I don't see him. Jack, I hate to say it but -" Before Kenny could finish his thought, another series of desperate yelps echoed out over the water.
"Dad! Dad! Dad!"
Jack angled his head, caught the source of the voice, and without a moment's hesitation he was in the water. The lanky, awkward man whose every movement had seemed accidental executed a dive any trainer would be proud of.
"I'll be damned," Shawn looked out on the ocean, still searching for the spot where Miles had come up, "I never would've thought. The little guy's a survivor."
"You don't know the half of it." Kenny added, also peering across the waves.
Within moments, the three men felt a cold chill born not of the frigid night, but stark and heart-wrenching realization. Jack didn't return to the surface.
Graham could only point. His single extended digit drew a straight line to a gull bobbing on the waves some twenty feet away. It regarded the men with a sideways glance... a wild eye... then threw back its head.
Its beak opened. "Dad!"
A chorus of identical voices, all belonging to Miles, rose up around the raft. In all directions, seagulls could be spotted in the distance.
"Dad Dad Dad Dad Daaaad!"
The commingling exclamations melted into the usual laughing cry emitted by the birds. It was a din of riotous laughter that did little to return any sense of normalcy. In unison, the gulls took flight and disappeared into the darkness above.
Graham, Kenny, and Shawn stared up into the night, toward the stars, and waited for the next horror to be unleashed upon them. Instead, they were met only with the sound of their own breathing and the slow, steady shift of the waves.
With a set jaw, Kenny glanced down at the water for one fleeting moment. There, he caught sight of Jack and Miles side by side. Pale, staring, expressionless. He immediately looked away.
The men hardened their hearts and braced themselves for the unknown. They took turns rowing, and despite the occasional thump against unseen debris below, the process seemed to be going well. When Shawn took the first turn at the oars, neither Graham nor Jack could muster any admiration. There was no bravery in the hearts of these men. No heroism. There was only the raw and terrifying need to continue living.
No one spoke. Shawn was possessed of a single-minded drive. Though no sound came out, his mouth moved as if he was deep in a conversation with himself.
Graham couldn't conceive of what to say to someone who had just lost his brother and nephew in the span of moments. Kenny couldn't conceive of how to bemoan his situation to a man who had lost his new bride.
For an hour or so, nothing was said.
"Getting tired," Shawn finally spoke actual words, "Can't keep us moving away from it."
Graham silently took Shawn's position as the large man sprawled out on the floor of the raft as best he could.
"Whoa." Graham took a few strokes with the oars, sat still for a moment in thought, then took another stroke.
"What noooww?" Shawn sounded fatigued. Expelling the breath necessary to ask seemed to drain all the air from him.
The oars thrashed the water a few more times, cutting deep and thrusting hard.
"It's not you," Graham cast the oars downward and leaned on the ends with his elbows, "Fucking Hell, it's like rowing air, we're not moving an inch."
Graham thrashed the water again, repeatedly, expelling hot breath into the cool night with each violent downward slice. He pulled, pushed, pitched and raged, but the raft did not budge.
"Well, that's it." Kenny rubbed his eyes.
"That's it." Graham nodded solemnly.
The raft turned a bit, ever so slightly, and began to slowly draw itself back toward the abandoned ship. The motion was barely noticeable at first, and though it only built to a snail's pace, the wake left behind left no room for doubt.
"Fate." Graham pulled in the oars.
"Fuck fate." Kenny retorted as he stood to take a piss over the side of the raft.
"Aahh," Shawn groaned, holding his aching biceps in his hands, "Calypso!"
The other two took seats on either side of Shawn as he stared blankly toward the apathetic moon.
No one took watch as the three slipped into a fevered sort of unconsciousness. If something took them in the night, then so be it. Better they be asleep, after all. In this semi-comatose state, they seemed to drift aimlessly on the sparkling, infinite canvas.
Mercifully, they did not witness the thick, rolling fog they were now approaching, nor could they notice the tremendous shadow within. The silhouette of a cruise ship.
Graham was the first to awaken as the raft rebounded off of something substantial. He rose and, as if still stuck within a dream, he rubbed his weary, reddened eyes.
A fog had engulfed them. Nearby, the cruise ship sat stoically against the blurred light of a rising Sun. All around the raft, a series of abandoned boats of every shape, size, and purpose turned and drifted in silence.
A rusted and worn gun boat clashed against a shimmering yacht with a resounding crack. Shawn and Kenny lifted their heads at the sound of this collision.
The three men sat, backs together, as the raft slowly spun amid the aquatic graveyard. Speed boats mingled with catamarans. The burned out, ancient husk of a steamer slowly steamrolled a duck-shaped tour boat and crushed it into moldering yellow driftwood.
Shawn shot to his feet, nearly spilling the others over the side.
"Holy shit, watch it!" Graham caught himself with one hand over the water. He wasn't sure if just touching it would cause him to be dragged under, but there was no point in finding out.
Using the inflated wall of the raft, Shawn spring boarded onto the running board of a speed boat. The kinetic reaction caused the raft to spiral off with the two others aboard. They could only watch as that boat seemed to drift further and further away with the towering security guard pulling himself up into it.
"Shawn!" Graham called out into the haze, "What the FUCK!"
The oars struck water again, operating normally now. Kenny and Graham each took a side as the frantic paddling brought them closer to the boat.
Shawn disappeared into the cabin of the speed boat as the raft drew closer. Soon after, he emerged and called back to the others.
Shawn kicked off of the speed boat and shimmied up the side of a fishing trawler. It struck Graham as distinctly similar to a live-action platformer game, only this time a real man's life hung precariously in the balance.
Kenny was the first onto the speed boat, but at this point the fishing trawler was too far to make a safe leap. Graham followed closely, and the two hauled the raft aboard as best they could.
"No fuel!" Shawn called over the side of the trawler before taking a running start and plummeting onto the deck of a yacht.
"He's gone." Graham whispered.
"I can still make him out." Kenny squinted into the fog.
"You know what I mean. He's completely gone."
The two could only take a seat on the rear of the boat as Shawn began madly kicking at the locked door of the yacht. At this point, the sound was clearer to the others than Shawn himself.
BANG. BANG. BANG. The desperate, demented assault on the door kept up at a steady, rhythmic pace. BANG. BANG. BANG. BANG.
Finally, the door gave way with a final crunch.
"I got it!" Shawn called out triumphantly.
Shawn stumbled backward. He raised a hand to his head, to his eye, and studied the crimson liquid on his fingers. He lurched to the side, and with a final, deep-throated groan, he collapsed over the side where the sea claimed his body.
Aboard the yacht, the dark silhouette of a woman emerged from the cabin. She brandished the unmistakable outline of a pistol and stared through the fog. She stared at the two men who were in turn staring back at her.
The shifting waters separated the vessels, and just as quick as she appeared, the woman and her boat were gone.
Compared to the pinball-like ricochets Shawn had displayed, Graham and Kenny moved at a snail's pace. Full of dread and slowed by fatigue, the two created a lasso of various boat tethers and gradually drew vessels close to them.
They moved across the floating metal and fiberglass shanty town, always careful to keep track of the boat that now held their raft full of supplies.
Each ship appeared to be disabled in some manner. From ground gears to burnt out engines, they were met by one disappointment after another. Upon settling in a tiny metal fishing boat, the first favorable discovery was made.
"Admiral, we've located a cooler." Kenny wrested the blue and white cube from beneath a wooden board that served as a seat.
"What've got, Admiral?" Graham replied, taking a seat on the cold floor.
Kenny popped open the cooler like a magician's assistant about to stun the audience. For all they knew, it was stocked with festering, long-dead nightcrawlers. Worse yet, festering long-dead human remains.
With a flourish, Kenny thrust the lid off and hurled it as far as he could into the darkness.
Beer. Three six-packs of it. While the ice had long become liquid and there was no telling how old the stuff was, both men were relieved to see it. Had they known their escape would turn out like this, they would've brought a few bottles of something stronger than purified water.
"Good work, Admiral. I'm putting a good word in for you when we get home." Graham leaned forward, scooped out one of the lukewarm cans, and studied it.
Kenny did the same, seating himself across from what he assumed to be the last man he'd ever see alive.
Cautiously, the pair popped the tops on the contraband. Though they braced for some implausible, violent spray of foam, there was nothing but the sloshing of flat, skunked alcohol.
They each threw back the first can within moments and tossed the empty containers over the side.
"Question." Kenny drew another two cans, tossing one to Graham.
"If two men are stranded alone in the Ocean and nobody's around to see them litter, is it illegal?"
Graham laughed as Kenny stood again, emptied the cans out onto the floor of the boat, and hurled the cooler into the fog. The only indicator of its final location was the sound of a splash within the haze.
"You know all that shit ends up in one place, right?" Graham watched Kenny sit again, "All the plastic and Styrofoam shit people toss in the water. It all drifts together in this big swirling dead zone."
"Who gives a fuck?" Kenny smirked, raising his eyebrows. He half-shrugged and gestured to their surroundings with both hands. "Fuck the Ocean."
"We should really keep trying." Graham noted, sensing that an unnoticed acceptance of death had steadily been washing over the both of them.
Without a word, Kenny moved to the outboard motor. He probed it, tapped it, and did a good job of pretending he knew what to do with it. Finally, he found the gas and oil caps.
"We have oil," Kenny studied, then replaced the dipstick, then unscrewed the gas cap and peered within, "Almost a full tank, too."
Graham was already halfway through his second beer as he gestured to Kenny dismissively. "Start the fucker up, then! Let's see what happens."
Kenny pulled the motor's rip cord with all of his strength. As he did, the cord caught at mid pull, forcing the handle through Kenny's fingers. He let out a holler and slammed a fist into the machine's rusty shell.
"FUCK. I knew it was too good to be true." Kenny studied his freshly bruised hand as it slowly faded into a deep purple.
Graham threw his second empty can over the side of the boat and joined Kenny at the motor. Placing his hands on the machine, Graham slowly rocked the thing back, tipping it into the boat and exposing the blades.
"Shit!" Kenny backed away in horror.
As expected, the blades that would normally propel the boat had been disabled. A tangled, thick nest of human hair was wound around the entirety of the blades, weaving over and between in an unmanageable clump. Within the hair, small crustaceans scattered and dove.
Attached to the hair, a woman's bloated, rotting head. The grotesque stowaway abruptly ended at the neck.
Graham dropped the blades back down with a splash.
The men returned to the speed boat, which now served as a sort of home base. The raft had remained untouched, and its contents were stored appropriately alongside the ancient six packs.
Seeing no more use in the raft, it was set out to float free and join its forever circling, empty cousins.
"She was a good raft, she was," Kenny saluted the raft as it disappeared from view, "Small, uncomfortable, and hard on the eyes, but we shall miss her." He was on his fourth beer, now.
Graham chuckled. "Sounds like someone I dated in high school."
"So I guess if Shawn were here, he'd say... let me see if I can get it right..." Kenny began a poor impression of the man, "Okay, motherfuckers, which motherfucker is going to take the first motherfucking watch?"
Graham didn't find that quite as funny.
Kenny let out a sigh, "I'll stay up. You get to some rest."
"Yeah, no problem. Plus the beer'll be gone by the time it's your turn."
Graham stared at the Sun for a moment. It was already climbing toward Noon, and he wondered if he'd even be able to relax at this time of day. After climbing into the ship's cabin and pushing past the broken latrine door that hung on its hinges, he found a large, square bed. Though it was unmade and smelled of human sweat, Graham was no longer capable of being squeamish.
Above deck, Kenny reclined on a Sun-faded seat and opened his fifth can. A cargo ship passed some distance away, moving too slowly to be a threat even if it was angled toward him.
On the railing of the ship, a row of sea gulls sat in a regimented line. They appeared to be placed at wing's length.
"Ain't nobody here but us seagulls," Kenny sang, "Ain't nobody here at all. So calm yourself, with all that fuss, there ain't nobody here but us..."
Below deck, Graham felt his eyes getting heavy as the oddly soothing drunken lullaby continued.
"Kindly turn that gun, the other way, and hobble hobble hobble off and hit the hay..."
Graham only returned to consciousness for a moment as he heard a dull thud against the side of the ship. From his position and the position of the sound, he could tell it had come from underwater. Something had struck the boat from beneath.
He knocked in response, waited, and heard another, quieter knock.
"Sam?" Graham rolled onto his stomach and put his hand against the wall of the boat. His eyes drooped down once again as he listened to the soft squeal of a human hand sliding down the exterior of the vessel.
"Ain't nobody here but us seagulls... ain't nobody here at all..." Kenny's off-key, Sinatra-esque crooning took Graham into slumber.
Graham knew he was dreaming. The entire time, he was well aware that nothing he was experiencing was real.
He had arrived on land, where he was met by Sam and his Mother. They had both been worried sick about him and covered him in a flurry of desperate, heart-broken kisses. Graham told the two most important women in his life that he'd come back to them in a moment, and even though they vehemently protested, he turned and walked back to the water.
At the edge of the Ocean, Graham grasped a hand that thrust itself from the darkness below. The hand belonged to Glenn, who thanked him profusely and walked off. Graham then pulled out the old man in white, then Miles, then Jack, who followed Glenn up the shore.
When Graham pulled Shawn out of the water, the large man crushed him in a bear hug and mussed his hair with one tremendous hand.
"Don't ever let me die again. You got that, you fucker?" Shawn laughed.
Graham turned toward his girls once more, only to hear a choking, wet cry from behind him.
He returned to the water again and looked for a hand to grasp. Instead, he was met only by Kenny's pale, frozen face beneath the lapping waves. His wide, reddened eyes met Graham's as a single, last bubble of oxygen left his lips.
He awoke with a start.
"Kenny?" Graham sat up, peeled the sticky blanket from his body, and started toward the cabin door, "How long was I asleep?"
As Graham emerged from the cabin, he fell to his knees with a resounding crack. The deck was empty, and save for the scattered debris of several emptied six-packs, Kenny was gone.
"Oh, no..." Graham crawled on hand and knee like an infant, "No, no, no... Not alone. I can't be alone."
Suddenly, Graham realized that the man had probably shifted to another boat. In some drunken show of courage, Kenny must have gone to collect the things they would need to make their escape. Indeed, he was surely on some mad sea-trotting scavenger hunt.
When Graham weakly pulled himself up against the railing, however, he saw no other ships. There was nothing now by the thick, cottony walls of fog.
"Oh God, Nooo!" Graham screamed until his lungs emptied.
The speed boat floated, sideways, for hours. Graham had begun a count in his head, though it had done little to help him in the brig. After enough time passed, the steadily increasing numbers were replaced with a count down.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one... Zero."
Graham cast his hooded gaze around him, looking for any sign of... anything.
"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one... Land."
"Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four..."
Graham took a sudden, sharp breath as a dark shadow emerged some distance away. As Graham stood and moved toward it, the black mass began to take shape. It had a wide base, gradually tapering to a peak. The outline of the thing was contoured as if comprised of rock and soil.
"Land!" Graham shrieked madly, "Land! Land! Land!"
For a moment, he considered leaping off the boat and paddling to shore. However, even as he was now within sight of safety, this still seemed too great a risk. Instead, he gathered as many supplies as he could carry and made his way expectantly to the side of the ship. The side that was now facing land.
"Thank you... Oh, thank you... Oh, I don't even care if I spend the rest of my life stranded, it's enough to be on solid ground!!"
As the boat drifted closer to its goal, Graham could feel himself salivating. He could think of nothing but the taste of the dry, salty sand he was about to kiss.
The fog parted as he drew closer... closer... closer... soon, the mass was well within sight and his vision had become clear.
Putrefying. Desiccated. Bloated. Skeletonized. Crushed, broken, severed, bloody, green, picked apart and Sun scorched. Such wide variety.
Hundreds... thousands of corpses. The island mass was comprised of nothing but remains of the dead lost at sea. Each body laid still, well and truly dead, all the way to the peak of the miniature continent.
Jaw slack, shaking, Graham surveyed the enormity of this floating graveyard. He wondered if it was even floating at all... or if this heap of discarded flesh and bone indeed persisted to the very ocean floor.
Crabs scuttled along the frozen faces. They picked at eyes and removed tongues. Gulls clustered in the skies and dove for snatched bits of flesh. Noses. Ears. Genitals.
The tide beat against the grim, fetid beach, bringing with it yet more corpses. Fresh bodies dressed in cruise outfits.
Graham retrieved a flare gun from its baggie, quietly thankful that he'd held onto it.
As he put the barrel into his mouth, he let a soft chuckle escape over that metal cylinder. At that moment, I like to think that he knew. I think that this man figured it all out in the half-second before he blew his brains out in a fiery red blast.
I want to believe he finally understood what I am.
It's sunset again, and the sky is turning a deep, beautiful scarlet.