“Pass me a beer?”
Without looking away from the water, Shawn dug one hand through the cooler beside him- fingertips chilling against the ice until he found the rounded shape of a tall aluminum can. Applying the dexterity of his long fingers, he formed a crab claw to snag an additional beer for himself. As he’d more or less been forced into this situation through guilt and half a lifetime of ‘you owe mes’, he’d determined the only way they’d both survive without bloodshed would be liberal sharing of alcohol.
Turning just enough to bring his father into view, Shawn leaned hard to the left and extended the chilly beverage towards the old man. Transferring his fishing pole to the other hand, Henry reached out for the can- barely grazing his fingers on the rim.
Grunting, Shawn leaned farther to the point of nearly tipping- finally making the pass before his chair could topple his ass to the deck. Hitching himself back to the comfortable slump he’d been enjoying moments before, he let his pole rest on the rail while popping the tab on his beer.
“When was the last time you checked your bait?”
Sipping the minor boil of foam, Shawn forced a mental three count before answering. “Dunno.”
Reeling up a few feet, Henry fiddled with the tension on his line. “You need to check every now and then. You’ve probably got a bare hook down there.”
Teeth beginning a familiar grind, Shawn pulled in a deep breath and gave the pole a sharp jerk before letting the tip droop towards the water again.
“Dad, what were the rules? You know, what we talked about back in the land of civilization?”
The older man delivered an irritated grunt while leaning back in his chair and tugging his hat down over his forehead.
“Those were your rules kid- but this is my boat, my fishing tackle, and my beer. And it’s your dinner if you don’t catch anything.” At the last words, Henry turned his head and tipped up his chin to study his son.
“Wait, what do you mean my dinner? You’ve got fifteen pounds of salmon on your side of the boat already!”
Henry chuckled. “Yep, my side of the boat. What do you have on your side Shawn? Two hunks of kelp and a crab?”
Shawn nudged the crustacean with his toe. “I’ll have you know that crab fought hard”
Henry chuckled, starting to turn back to his own pole when the tip of Shawn’s rod suddenly jerked down violently.
“Woah!” A fast lunge the only thing keeping the whole works from spilling into the ocean, the younger man kicked the chair out of the way as he braced his feet on the pitching deck.
“Hang on, don’t set the hook too fast or you’ll lose him!” Reeling furiously, Henry pulled his own hook from the water- bare Shawn noted smugly- and joined his son who’d broken into a sweat at the tremendous weight dragging at his fishing rod.
“NUH- I th-think I.. huh… win this time dad!” The muscles beneath his shirt sleeves bunched as he leaned back against the pull. The butt of the rod dug into his stomach. It felt like he was trying to land a small ocean liner.
“Jesus!” Out of breath already, Shawn panted as he strained his back- reeling down like dad had shown him- and he’d reluctantly learned- before digging in and lifting. Whatever he’d hooked, it fought like a Brahma bull- the rapid kick of its tailfin felt through the line in a furious vibration.
Determined to remain uncaught, the fish darted first left, and then right before doubling back to race beneath the boat- forcing Shawn to reel up rapidly to keep tension on the line.
“You got him kiddo, that’s it… Don’t let that tip down!” The continued advice/ chastisement at his side so wasn’t helping, but Shawn was too out of breath to stutter that observation.
Another reel down, another pull, and the weight on the other end stopped dead. He couldn’t pull. He couldn’t budge it one micron. “MMM-Dude! I think it’s snagged!”
“Shawn, we’re in forty feet of water, it can’t be snagged on anything!”
Heaving upwards until the rod began to creak, Shawn gasped- arms shaking from the attempt. “Well it… sure isn’t a… fis-fish… must be… whale!”
“Let me help you-” Wrapping his fingers a bit higher on the rod, Henry took some of the weight while Shawn grabbed a rapid breather. His heart felt like it was trying to force through his ribs- and he now had yet another thing to add to his list of why he hated fishing.
“Wha…tever happ’nd to- guh- a relaxing day on… water?” His fingers twitched against the graphite- one hand releasing just long enough to wipe his wrist across his forehead. Okay, so maybe dad had something going on with the whole hat thing- it felt like his scalp was baking under the pounding sun.
“If I wanted that I wouldn’t have invited you.” Shaking his head, Henry stopped pulling to look at his son. “I don’t know kid, maybe you’re right.”
“Maybe I’m right? Wow, thanks for the endorsement dad, I hope you didn’t rupture your appendix with that admission.” Palms burning, Shawn readjusted his grip on the rod- just in time for it to suddenly plow forward, ripping right out of Henry’s grip.
“Woah! Dad, I think that-” Heaving again, words escaped into the air in a vicious gasp as the rod tore forward- abruptly curved beneath the boat, and with a sharp yell, Shawn was flipped right over the rail.
Water boiled over his head, muffling his father’s voice, while he immediately released the rod to kick upward. Unfortunately the rod didn’t release him, the thin tough line winding around one wrist as the monster fish on the other end dragged him down.
God!! Bubbles escaped past his lips as he frantically tore at the line cutting into his flesh- the panic of being pulled from the world of oxygen no help in freeing him to return to it.
And then the line suddenly went slack.
Throat jumping, Shawn kicked and clawed for the blobby spackled surface- burn ripping in his lungs- inhaling immanent in spite of the several feet separating him from the air…
Gasping, spitting, thrashing in the waves, Shawn spun around several times before spotting the boat- how the hell did I get so far away?! There was still a drag on his wrist- line wrapped and slicing in spots. Too heavy for biting through, he risked his head going under again to dig for a knife in his opposite pocket. Kicking and sputtering, he was aware of dad turning the boat to head his way. Meanwhile, he finally dug free the blade and began awkwardly cutting through the thin fibers.
Surprisingly strong, it took a second or so of sawing before the last loop finally broke and the weight of the rod dropped away. Man, dad was going to flay him for this. That was an expensive reel.
He looked up.
Impact cold and hard drove him under the waves once more.
Water filled his mouth and nose, pressure clamping down on his hip and thigh- his body thrashed back and forth furiously while his flailing arms swung out wide. Panic- instant and paralyzing as momentum slammed his fingers against something like muscular sandpaper. And as a blossom of red grew around him, he suddenly knew what was happening.
Pain! Shocking and immediate, the agonizing serration followed horrifying knowledge. Still propelled forward, he felt himself being shaken side to side once more- froth and blood thickening as teeth sank deep into his body. Screaming- the sound dulled- he clamped his lips together as the last of his breath left him.
Stop it! Stop, please God! STOP!
He was still holding the knife.
He swung wildly- barely noticing while the first try stabbed his own leg. The second though…
An eye- black shielded by a skim of white- four inches of steel buried deep into the orb.
More shaking, his mind ripping with his flesh, death real and seconds away… and it let go.
A wall, dun gray and striped, raced past his glazing eyes- gill slits pumping- dorsal fin dividing bubbles as the massive shark dove towards darker water.
In seconds it was gone.
Shawn couldn’t move. His body hung- kicked back and forth as the waves surged against him. All he could see was misty red.
Far away voice- fading by the second. His chest hitched twice- giving up- and water poured in. He convulsed in agony. Limbs jerked in weakening spasms.
He slowly began to sink.
The warning was too late as Henry watched the steel colored body slam into his son and drag him under.
Wrenching the wheel into a dangerously tight turn, Henry gunned towards the spot, twenty feet away, where the water was tarnishing in rust.
Five feet from the spreading blood he cut the engine. Move fast- think fast! He kicked off his shoes while stripping out of his shirt. Two minutes now since Shawn had breathed air. How far down? How hurt was he? No time for thinking- need to move! Shocky desperation jerked his fingers as he grasped the length of rope curled beneath the rail. He wanted- he had to rescue his son now- but if he didn’t take this extra second… And then the rope was around his waist and he was flipping his legs over the rail.
Feet first, he dropped into the water, closing fast over his scalp.
He waited through the skim of bubbles- wanting nothing more than to bully through them. He had no idea what waited in the darker depths- and going in with vision obscured could kill them both.
Squinting through the fading blue, his macabre guide was the blood trailing into darkness- slowly being picked apart with the current. Kicking his feet hard, he dove.
Tiny waves lapped against the sides of the boat. The heat from the late afternoon sun glowed orange on the metal- glimmering where droplets collected along the edge. Soft cries from seabirds heading to roost carried through the air.
“HUUK!” Henry choked on seawater as his head broke the surface. Gasping, his arm slapped through the swells as he rolled to his back- dragging the limp form of his son across his chest. Shawn was bleeding badly, the thick crimson widening around them like a halo. Fear of the shark returning wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the feel of warmth pumping across his arm as Henry battled the waves to orient himself in the water.
There, about fifteen feet away. Shawn wasn’t breathing, there was no time for thinking about anything beyond getting back to the boat. Clawing more than swimming, his fingers dug through the white caps- the vessel seeming to never get any closer while Shawn was simultaneously slipping away.
In spite of Henry’s strong backstroke, the weight of the younger man’s body kept pulling them both beneath the waves. Waterlogged and blood slick limbs increased the chances of Shawn slipping free, and Henry heaved him a bit higher out of the water while wrapping his forearm tightly beneath the stubbled chin.
Breathe in, breathe out- keep swimming, keep fighting. Swallowing seawater and air, he kicked and pulled and cursed through his teeth. He didn’t think about anything beyond breaking past the next wave, gaining that next foot, that next inch.
Ten feet, five feet, breath nearly gone within strokes of the rail, his fingers actually slipped with the first couple of grabs. He felt the exhaustion burning through his muscles and in every inhalation that was almost a sob. On the third try, he forced his fingers to curl around the first rung of the ladder jutting from the stern. His chest ached but he couldn’t afford a break. Shifting his grip until his arm could hook around Shawn’s torso, he began to crawl towards the rail.
The climb into the boat was more frightening than the swim- the manta of too late adding desperation with every inch gained- ‘too long without oxygen- too much blood lost- too much trauma…’
Their bodies spilled together on the deck- the surface immediately becoming slippery with streaks of bright red.
Get him breathing-
Rolling Shawn to his back, Henry tipped back his head, made certain his airway was clear while his fingertips felt for the pulse. Heart still beating, no chest compressions, just air. Pinching nostrils he began the procedure- ignoring emotion to focus on the clinical. One set of fingers remained against the beating pulse while the other set pinched Shawn’s nose. Breathe, breathe, come on breathe…
Shawn was cold. His lips were blue- skin pale under the splatter of blood.
“Come on kid- please God!”
Breathe in, nothing out-
Throat constricting- eyes hot- breathe- breathe…
“Shawn damn it!”
Water ejected in a gout, spilling over trembling lips while Henry quickly pushed Shawn on his side, holding him while he vomited fluid and hacked- breathing in whooping gasps.
“Open your eyes son…”
Shawn whined instead- pitch rising into an agonized wail. His hand spasmed to his side where flesh was torn and raw. Henry quickly grabbed his wrist.
“No kid, just try to lie still. I’ll be right here, just hold on- I’m right here.”
Feet sliding beneath him, Henry barged towards the canopy to slap his palm against the radio. Static and hiss before he lifted the receiver and depressed the button.
“Mayday, mayday, this is Henry Spencer, we’ve been attacked by a shark! Longitude one eighteen, latitude thirty one. One victim with severe wounds, I need medical assistance immediately! I repeat, this is Henry Spencer…”
The radio crackled with a return signal before a voice broke through the distortion.
“Mr. Spencer, this is Alec Greggs with the Santa Barbara Coast Guard, we’re about five minutes from your position. Is the victim conscious and breathing?”
Henry grabbed the inadequate medical kit while behind him Shawn continued to whimper and gasp.
“Yes, but he’s bleeding badly- you need to get here now!” Dropping the unit, he knelt back onto the deck and flipped the latch on the kit.
The rolls of gauze and sample sized doses of medication were laughable now. Adequate for embedded hooks and minor lacerations, the wounds before him were outside comprehension. Helplessness wasn’t acceptable however.
“Shawn, the Coast Guard is on the way, just hold it together.”
Too weak to escape treatment, Shawn clawed at the deck while Henry retrieved several towels and folded them across the tattered gouges in his son’s flesh. The damage was horrific- red meat cut open with by a maniacal surgeon- in some spots exposing bone. The radius of the bite circled his body from sternum to thigh- wrapping around his abdomen in an irregular series of mangled punctures. There just wasn’t enough bandaging to seal it all. But he couldn’t let himself see the failure of his attempts- only where he could actually help. He focused on Shawn’s thigh where the wounds were the worst.
His belt served as an acceptable tourniquet- a good thing as the towels were already drenched. Fingers sticking together, socks catching on the tacky surface, Henry stood at the sound of a horn blast.
Unnecessary, but he waved his arms anyhow as the larger vessel drifted towards his boat. At the prow, several men in uniform had gathered, one of them preparing to toss a rope.
Tying up quickly, Henry knelt once more as the Coast Guard cutter nudged alongside with a gentle thump.
“You’re gonna make it Shawn, just stay with me… stay with me.”
Shawn didn’t respond.