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“Henry A. Coleman” by Elaine Hatcher

Henry A. Coleman

by Elaine Hatcher

 

“Alright thanks man. I’ll be sure to do that. Have a good night and I’ll see you tomorrow.” Jim waves off to his buddy, grabs and wraps me loop after loop around his arm, and we take off for the parking lot.

I’m not in the mood to be stuffed in the toolbox with my stuffy toolmates today, I’m just not. It has been a long day, and I just want some AC and classic rock. Some days I am in the toolbox, and some days in the backseat; I never know what to expect. The decision is never based on my performance at work, or even Jim’s mood. I have yet to figure it out. Once after a long day I was so desperate to stay out of the toolbox I took a risky chance and wrapped around the not-so-tender woodsaw I was connected to in hopes of sneaking a hitchhike. The big tools always get to ride in the front. But when we got to the truck Jim was quick to unplug and place me in the back. No rhyme or reason!

The only thing I can do now is cross my prongs and hope for the best. We just made it to the truck…

Ugh. It’s a toolbox day. I should have known. We did not have a lot of our team out today, so maybe Jim thought it would be best to just single trip dump me in the back with the rest. Easier for him yes, but dreadful for me. Stuffy and dark and crowded, I really do not like it in here. In the front I have a cushy seat and can look out the window and see the strip. But back here I am jammed between the screwdrivers and bolt box and do not even have room to stretch. And every time we hit a pothole I end up knotted for a week. I know hate is a strong word, but I hate being in the toolbox. I hate it. I didn’t want this today, I don’t want this any day really but what can I do? It is what I have come to learn as my life. And crossing my prongs never seems to work for much.

At least when we get back home things are different; Jim takes me out first and puts me in the backyard tool shed by the chain linked fence. This is a daily event I can depend on. Unlike the uncertainty of my ride home, arriving home is like taxes or the tides. I know the minute the truck stops I will be brought back to the shed and hung from my trusty rusty nail on the wall. The other tools are eventually brought back too, but I am always one of the first. Whether it is because I am the last one packed and the first one out or because Jim likes me best I do not know, but I like it either way. Being first brings a moment of elation to my otherwise menial existence.

And menial is to say the least. Lowly, repetitive and downright pathetic are much more appropriate.

“Hey Dad! Check this out you’re never going to believe what happened!”

“Yeah! Wattson got caught near the big socket today and Mom is so mad.”

“Yeah and Charger was going to go play there too but lucky for him I told him not to…”

“You did not!”

“I did too!”

Triplets: Charger, Wattson and Turbine. Not even 6 foot of length yet, yet are amped up like 50 foot power strips. They get their liveliness from my side of the family.

“Dad are you gonna yell at Wattson too?”

“Yeah Mom said you would. She said, “Wattson, just you wait until your father gets home!” and then she left and made Wattson stay in his room till dinner.”

“Yeah she did! Do you wanna go see him right now? Ohh I bet he’s scared of you Dad!”

Let me take this moment to inform you, I was not designed for this mediocre existence. Through a computer glitch and twisted fate I ended up here, on this nail with a wife, three kids, and filling the needs of my owner Jim who runs Paradise Electric in Nevada. Do not let the name fool you, it is just the name of our town; nothing paradise-like about it. Instead of lighting up the Luxor I am powering Jim’s drill or the family Christmas lights when he takes his annual two week winter vacation.

But like I said, I am not designed for this. I am a Coleman. A Twenty Five Foot, Heavy Duty, Orange Outdoor Vinyl Power Extension Cord. I was designed for power and strength! Purposed to accomplish great feats of energy transfer from one place to another! Constructed to provide light and force and vitality to where it is needed most! Back in 1990 I was set on the production track for Vegas, packaged and stamped in a box destined for The Strip. I was a young plug then and had only heard stories, but from what I did hear Vegas was where I needed to be. One of the guys said the city was so bright at night you could see it from space! With my durable design and genes for perfect current strength I knew then my life’s purpose was to be a provider for the brightest city on Earth.

Despite my genes and dreams, life has a way of taking matters into its own unreasonable hands. The day I was shipped a big storm hit and our factory computers went down. My box was already packed and en route, so the storm seemed inconsequential to me at the time. From what I could overhear from the driver we had two stops that day, the majestic MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, and a small, unknown hardware store located in an equally small and unknown suburb called Paradise. We arrived at the small store first and the driver came around back to scan and drop off boxes filled with tools not destined for greatness. But with the computers down the scanner could not register which boxes were which, and as a result fates were twisted and the right boxes went to the wrong place. I never made it to Vegas.

After Jim purchased me almost 25 years ago, a series of typical small town events unfolded to lead to the proverbial nail I’m hanging from today. Employment in a laborious, unrewarding 9 to 5 job; a surprising connection with a conservative Belkin surge protector eventually led to marriage; and the most recent and unexpected earned role of fatherhood when kids were added to the mix after a post-Thanksgiving request from Jim’s wife.

“Jim, the family is growing so big. We need to have more entertainment at Christmastime. Karaoke for the kids, music for the adults, what do we have to do to make it happen?”

And the rest is history.

“Hey Dad?”

“What son?”

“Are you gonna go see Wattson now?”

“Yeah Dad. Come on let’s go he’s waaaiiitinnggg!”

Don’t get me wrong, I love my wife, and I love my kids, but I cannot help spending my days wishing I was doing something else and my nights longing to be part of something bigger. My wife doesn’t know it but while she sleeps I am wide awake, looking towards the north where Vegas lights up the sky like a rocketship blasting into space. From my nail I can peer through the shed doors and out through the fence to catch a glimpse of the strip and dream of the life I had been stripped of living. How heroic and noble it would be to provide energy for lights and shows and spectacles! Making sounds and sights possible in areas where these components could not exist without me, and powering lights and cameras and…

“Hey Dad!”

What? Oh.

“What son?”

“You ok?”

“Yes son, I’m ok.”

I tell a lie.

No. I am not ok.

But so is my life.

 

The next morning is almost an exact repeat of the last; I wake from sleepless slumber tired from the day ahead before it even begins, and my wife is arranging and preparing the kids for another day at tool school. I can hear them in the back;

“Turbine, check out the new volt I earned yesterday!”

“Charger didn’t earn it he stole it!”

“Oh yeah? Well at least I could light up that light bulb when you couldn’t!”

“Yes I could to! I did it when you turned around! I lit that light bulb up so much it almost exploded!”

“Nuh uuh!”

“Uh huh!!”

Just as I am about to shout to calm their wiry nerves and avoid losing mine, Jim walks in to grab me and the tools he needs, and my work day officially begins. I look over to my wife and kids and feel the repeat guilt I always feel every morning. She deserves better. The kids deserve better. This old shed is no place to raise a family.

The past few weeks Jim and I have actually been working on the strip. But it is not the strip you typically imagine or the strip I see at night; the city by day is not really impressive at all. There is no action and plenty of sunlight and therefore no need for me. Not in the way I want to be needed anyway. The Bellagio has been converting one of their old convention rooms into a performance hall, and Jim won the contract to rewire and install the new lighting. It is going to be an amazing space! It’s not yet completed but you can already tell this will be one of the best stages in town. Interactive theater seating, ultimate lighting systems, the highest of high-end sound systems; it will be an electrical dream come true! I tell myself that because I am working here now I am a real and true Vegas cord, providing mega support for the megastars that will soon grace this stage with their presence. I try to convince myself of this stretched truth just to get through the day with some sort of dignity, but as Jim plugs his DC 800 drill into my receiving end, the delusion’s falsity becomes very apparent.

The long day winds down in its typical fashion, and Jim grabs and wraps me and starts heading towards the lot. As I begin my usual yet obviously futile prong crossing ritual, one of the contractors calls Jim over.

They start talking shop and I can tell the nature of their conversation is longwinded, and it is drawing Jim towards the other guy’s truck and away from ours. Out of nowhere I feel an unusual sensation; I am genetically engineered for proper grounding and rarely blow a fuse, but something inside is swelling and the current situation is making it worse. I don’t even care if I get crammed in the toolbox at this point, I just want to go home. To get home and back to, well, what, my shed? My drafty shed and 3 unintentionally energy draining kids? Back to Paradise? Oh blasphemous life I just can’t take this anymore! So angry and yet, no one to be angry with except myself. It all seems so hopeless. I should have done more with my life.

At this point I drift off or pass out, which of the two I do not know. I think my internal outburst caused my current pressure to rise. Either way, I was out like a light. Or a broken light rather. I never understood that idiom.

 

When I stir I can tell I am a pickup truck bed, but it is not Jim’s. Wherever I am and whoever I am with I do not know, but based on the recognizable jerky start-stop of the truck I can tell we are stuck in traffic. As I come to I look around and notice a few other tools and a big old generator in the back corner, but that’s about it. If there are other tools they must be lucky and in the back seat, because they are not here with us. It is getting dark outside and before I have a chance to get nervous a realization halts me in my thought tracks…

I am in the back of a pickup truck, cruising down the strip in downtown Vegas.

“Hey kid!”

I can’t believe it but it is true. I am here, in Vegas, live and in the flesh, and past working hours! I don’t even know…

“Hey kid!”

Kid? Wait, who is talking? They cannot be referring to me, I am a 25 foot Coleman! I am no kid!

“What’s the deal? Are you trying to play it cool kid? I’m talking to you.”

It was the old generator in the back. I guess compared to him everyone is a kid.

“Oh, no, no sir. I just was, well I mean, I’m confused. Where am I? I mean, why am I, whose truck is this?”

“You’ve been out for some time. Your buddy Jim up there put you in the back with us, and our buddy John is taking him out for his birthday. You’re stuck in the back here for the night kid.”

“You mean, stuck for the night in Vegas?”

“That’s the plan. You ok wi…”

Whatever he said after that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered. Well, let me take that back. Everything now actually mattered. Life finally mattered! This was a chance for my break! Big possibilities! It was only a birthday party, but staying the whole night in Vegas would lead to something incredible for sure. I have heard the stories about this place, and they are almost always the same. The night starts off simple only to lead to a crazy experience. Sometimes unbelievable. In the very least this evening would give me a chance to get a prong in the door. I can see my story unfolding now; Vegas truck night tonight, Celine Dion and Mystere lighting stage team tomorrow! Look out fame and fortune here I come!

“Where are we going? Are we seeing a show? Do you know if they will need lighting for their party? Or sound? Or…”

“Whoah kid now slow down. It’ll be a low key night. Well, low key for Vegas anyway. John’s gotta get back home before dawn. We’re headed to the Mirage for some blackjack and later to MGM Grand for the fight. And by “we” I mean them. You and I and the rest of the tool gang will be here in the back of the truck. So take it easy.”

But nothing could crush my excitement at this point. Even staying in the back of the truck all night seemed to be a glorious opportunity. As the sun was setting I could tell it would be a magnificent experience. So much better than anything back home! The strip was already starting to light up, much brighter and more intense than I ever presumed from my sleepless nights in the shed. And it was not even nighttime yet. This was about to get good. No, not good, GREAT.

“So we are going there now? To the Mirage? Will we be outside the whole night?”

“Yeah kid, we will. You ok? Seem kinda jumpy; you’ve been on The Strip before, right?”

The Strip? At night? UhhhhOF course!

“Of course! Yeah, I mean yes, I have come to the Strip, I mean, been on the Strip plenty of times. Just, you know, not like this, that’s all. Usually I’m with the band…”

With the band?? What band? He’d never buy it.

“I mean, part of the band, banding, abandoning, not that I was abandoned, because I’m not, or wasn’t, I mean I just was here in the past with others. Like with a group. And not in the back of a truck.”

Phew! Good recovery.

“Well, alright there kid, whatever you say. Just try to keep your cool. You’re not strapped down you know? Last thing we want is you causing a scene and getting picked off.”

Picked off? Does he mean stolen? And kept here forever in Vegas? An extension cord can dream…

“Ok, you got it sir. I mean man, er, dude, sir. Thank you.”

And with that big old Generator slowed himself down and shut off, maybe for the whole night? Probably best to be honest; I needed to spend more time thinking and less time talking out my plug. I nailed the band recovery for sure, but usually I am not the best liar.

We pull off to the side to park, and manage a spot right on the strip. What luck! Such great place to spend my first night in the city. The sky is getting darker and the lights are getting brighter, so bright my eyes have a hard time adjusting to the glare, but that is to be expected. I have never seen a sight so amazing in my whole life! All around me are spectacles and wonders and magnificent hotels; hotels with captivating shows and brilliant casinos inside just waiting to discover me and put me to work. It is my destiny that I am here tonight; maybe all the prong crossing had an effect after all.

Jim and John get out of the truck, lock the doors and head down the strip. It is tough to see over the edge of the truck bed, but what I can see is plenty enough. Off to one side is Paris and on the other is New York New York’s rooftop roller coaster, and if I time my look just right I can catch the tips of the dancing Bellagio waters down the street. Oh how I wish my family was here to see this! Even better; how proud of me will they be when I finally arrive home with my new career? I can picture it now…

“Hey Dad, where ya been?”

“Yes honey, where have you been? You seem longer, taller, prouder…”

“Well family, I have an announcement. Pack your bags because we are moving to Vegas! Poppa’s got a new gig and we’ve been upgraded to the biggest penthouse storage warehouse in the city!”

“Oh honey that is wonderful news!”

“That’s awesome Dad Yeah!”

“Yeah Dad yeah!”

The kids would go on to brag to their friends, and my wife would finally be able to enjoy all the luxury she deserves. She could dress in the finest materials and would receive more volts than she ever imagined possible and could …

My dream comes to an abrupt stop as commotion on the strip grabs my attention. How long was I fantasizing? An hour or two? Maybe more? It feels late actually and the streets seem to be brimming with people and lights and the scents of, what is that, hot dogs and alcohol? Not quite as elegant as I would have expected for a city like Vegas, but maybe a street party is starting? A few years back Jim hosted a birthday party for his son and all the parents came over and drank Budweiser and the kids ate hot dogs. This street party appears a little different though; it includes yelling and screaming and slurring words and whoah ok I guess flying glass bottles are part of the Vegas party culture too. A little threatening yes, but no matter, I can get used to it. If this is how Vegas celebrates Friday nights, I will play my dutiful part. Bring on the revelry!

As I consider waking old generator to ask him how to protect my exterior from alcohol damage, Jim and John approach the truck, chatting about their Mirage blackjack experience. It looks to be a passionate exchange; Jim must have hit it big! Winning is what always happens in Vegas!

It is tough to hear what they are saying because the streets are getting louder and my ears are starting to hurt, but I can struggle enough to get the basic scoop. It sounds like Jim did not win money after all, and in fact lost more than he bargained for. How could this have happened? Vegas is where dreams come true and Jim should not be an exception to the rule! I strain to hear more but before I can grasp another word they walk away. I try to see where they are headed, but like my sense of hearing, my vision is going and I have to squint to see clearly. My eyes must be having a harder time adjusting to the Vegas lights than I thought, but I know I can manage. A bit of sensory overload never hurt anyone, and I gotta get used to this if Vegas is going to be my new workplace!

Despite the ringing in my ears I notice a voice rising above the buzz of the streets. It sounds like an announcer’s voice, and from what I can make out he is talking about an event tonight at the MGM Grand.

Of course, the MGM Grand! Where the guys are headed off to watch, what was it old generator said, a contest? I wonder what kind of contest? Something chivalrous like knights fighting on horseback, or maybe a celebrity-studded talent show? Oh it doesn’t even matter. Anything as majestic as the MGM Grand will put on a show of high caliber and class for sure. To be broadcast across all the bars on the strip it must be important. And from the sounds of the crowd it is exciting too! I cannot believe old generator is sleeping through this. The contest has got to be an ultimate Vegas event, maybe the greatest event of all time! If my eyes could see anything at this point I would be gazing towards the bars’ big screens for sure.

I sit and focus my remaining senses on the announcers’ words; oh how I wish I could be at the Grand now! I hear the crowd cheer, then boo, then cheer again; what could be happening? It sounds so exciting! What is going on?

I begin to hear the announcers more clearly;

“Ahh he is so strong it’s unbelievable, but how will he respond to the power of Buster’s right hook?”

Right hook?

“Yes, his coach is yelling to him from the corner to and I quote, “bust him up.” This could be a quick finish for the rookie from the East Coast; let’s see what happens here at the end of the round.”

Round? Round of what?

“I’ll tell you what, as we approach these last ten seconds, you can see Buster is starting to fade. And there’s the bell, let’s hope he can gain a big recovery during the short break.”

And so it was. Vegas’s biggest event of the night, the big contest being hosted at the ever gallant MGM Grand, was one big fight.

I can’t believe it. I feel like a fool.

How can this be true? All my dreams of grandiose purpose, all shattered in a single night of Vegas’s glaring and noisy truth. The bright lights are a mask to a life not made for me, and the reality behind the smokescreen is nothing more than an opportunity to lose money, or in my case, two of my five senses.

How could I have been so deceived? Compared to this, my life back home now feels like the dream.

Where is Jim? I want to go home.

It may not be flashy or big or bright, but it is my predictable life and I want it back.

I want my stuffy rides home in the toolbox!

I want my rusty old nail back! And my drafty old shed!

I want to spend winters lighting up Christmas lights and summers working with Jim’s cheap drill!

I want normal sight and hearing again!

And most importantly, I want to be with my wife and kids.

I feel like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. Who knew I have been living my dream life all along?

“TAKE ME BACK TO PARADISE!”

Just then old man generator kick jumps from his sleep; did I yell that out loud?

“Gee wiz kid, what’s the matter with you? You ok?”

I guess I did.

“Oh sorry sir, nothing sir. Nothing’s the matter with me at all. I’m ok.”

And for the first time in as long as I can remember, I was telling the truth.

© 2014 Elaine Hatcher

“Appreciate the Wrapping” by Jacqui Pitt

Appreciate the Wrapping

by Jacqui Pitt

 

“Where did you go, you piece of wannabe origami!” Grumbling, Travis Voiche reached under the bed, carefully keeping the weight off his right knee as he grabbed the elusive paper that he had knocked off the desk Stephan kept beside the bed. Straightening back up, he sat on floor by the bed, and looked at the creamy piece of folded paper. The words printed on the front shook him to his core.

“Stephan!” Travis’s voice croaked out of his throat. Trying again, he called out louder,

“Stephan!”

“Yeah?” Stephan Rocxiv answered as he stopped just inside the bedroom doorway, leaning against the jamb as he dried his hands with a dishtowel. “Hey, why are you on the floor? You know you’re supposed to be resting.” He moved toward Travis.

“What is…” Travis’s voice trailed off as he looked at the leaflet in his hands. Unable to get the words out, he waved it at Stephan, who immediately turned pale.

“Wh-where did you find that?” Stephan asked quietly.

“I knocked some stuff off your desk, and it fell under the bed,” Travis replied in a near whisper.

“I didn’t know whether the stuff was important, so I picked it up.”

“Instead of calling me?” Stephan asked, walking over. “Trav, you’re still recuperating from some major surgery. Bending and twisting isn’t good for you.”

“I know,” Travis said. “But, what is this funeral paper all about?” He waved the leaflet in the air.

“Well,” Stephan said, taking a deep breath. “I’m not sure how to explain…”

“You aren’t sure how to explain?” Travis exclaimed, tearing up. “I suggest you figure it out, Stephan!”

Stephan looked at his best friend and the leaflet the other man held.

“I think it’d be better if I showed you,” he replied, holding his hands out palm up, and wiggling his fingers toward Travis.

“Showed me?” Travis looked up at Stephan, confused. When Stephan just wiggled his fingers again, Travis reached up and grabbed his hands.

“Carefully,” Stephan warned as he started to pull Travis up. Once both men were standing, Stephan leaned over and lifted Travis into his arms.

“What are you doing, you idiot?” Travis cried, smacking Stephan on the shoulder.

“Doc said no strenuous movement, Trav,” Stephan replied, carrying him into the living room and placing him carefully on the sofa next to the two dogs who had been napping on the cushions.

Straightening up, Stephan moved over to the shelving beside the television and DVD player, and grabbed a slim case. Silently, he transferred the disc inside to the DVD player. Holding the case, he walked back to the couch, nudged the dogs off the couch, and sat down on the opposite end. His hand trembling, Stephan slowly held the case out to Travis so he could see the cover. When Travis took the case, Stephan leaned over to the coffee table and grabbed the remote. Placing the remote on the couch by Travis, he stood again.

“I need a drink,” he said quietly. “Want one?”

“Yeah, water,” Travis whispered quietly, still staring at the DVD case. He was still staring at it when Stephan returned with two icy bottles of water and handed him one.

Returning to his seat, Stephan picked up the remote and asked, “You ready for this?”

“Y-yeah,” Travis whispered, not looking at Stephan.

Sighing inwardly, Stephan started the video, then leaned back, his focus on Travis’s face.

Upbeat music started playing, grabbing Travis’s attention in time for him to see the words

“Welcome to Celebrating Renae’s Life!” form across the screen. Travis gasped as the screen filled with happy people at a sun-filled meadow party in the wooded area behind Stephan’s house.

Whoever had the camera was dancing around the meadow, catching people laughing, eating, and dancing. Several minutes conversations played on the screen, most filled with laughter. About ten minutes into the DVD, Rick, Travis’s brother-in-law raised his hands to his mouth and let out an ear-piercing whistle.

“Hear ye, hear ye! One and all! ‘Tis time to begin,” he shouted. “So shut yer yappers and take a seat!” He motioned dramatically toward an arrangement of seats that faced a wooden podium made of – Travis looked closely.

“Is that my sled and dresser from my parents’ house?” He asked, a small smile on his face.

“Yeah,” Stephan replied. “Rose made it.”

“Rosie?” Travis’s voice wavered slightly as he watched the video.
“She said it was important to do it this way,” Stephan replied.

“Do what?” Travis asked, still staring at the screen as the last few people took their seats.

“Watch,” was all Stephan would say as Rose walked up the aisle between rows of seats to stand beside the podium. Turning to the camera, she motioned.

“Stephan! Get up here!” The image jolted a bit before becoming still as it was attached to a stand. Stephan’s image then came on screen and walked up to stand behind the furniture podium. Facing the crowd, and squinting into the sunlight, he started to speak.

“Thank you all for coming today to help us celebrate the life of Renae Marie Voiche,” he welcomed the group. “We all know that when Travis finds out about this, well, the shit could hit the fan. But we’ve all loved Renae for so long, and we need to celebrate what she has brought to our lives, and how she has gifted us with her presence.” As Stephan’s voice began to break up, Rose wrapped her arm around him in a side hug and spoke up.

“We asked that you all bring items that remind you solely of Renae, wrapped up in biodegradable wrapping – we don’t want Travis to murder us for killing the planet! – “ she grinned as everyone laughed, then continued, “and I know a few people want to share what she meant to them and why they are putting certain things in our time capsule of sorts,” she patted the side of the small dresser that acted as the podium. Looking around, she smiled as a single tear rolled down her cheek.

Watching Travis, Stephan saw a matching tear rolling, and quietly handed over a tissue.

“Renae has been my twin sister for our entire lives,” she grinned at the group through her teary eyes. “We had a sucky childhood, since you all know our parents,” she laughed at the shouts of agreement. “And we all know that our father, ‘the head of the family’ as our mother liked to call him, was, is and will always be a nut job.” Rose reached into her pocket and pulled out a huge nut that was covered in colorful paint.

“We found this the first year we went to boarding school,” she held it up for everyone to see. “And we painted it to look like our father on one side,” she swiveled it to show the image. “And our mother on the other side.” She swiveled it again. “And made a promise that when one of us had broken free from the nut house, she’d give it to the other. And when the other had broken free, too, we’d bury it. I broke free when I married my Rick,” She smiled at her husband in the front row. “And now Renae is free from the nut jobs we knew as parents.” Smiling, but with tears tracking down her cheeks, Rose opened a drawer in the small dresser, tossed in the nut, and slammed the drawer shut. “And good riddance!” She cried out. Still smiling through her tears, she walked herself and Stephan over to sit by Rick.

An older man moved slowly up to stand beside the dresser. Turning to face the group, he removed his broad-brimmed hat and held it, worrying the brim as he spoke.

“Miss Renae and Miss Rose were like daughters to me the whole time I worked on the gardens at their parents’ house,” he said. “Miss Rose always managed to blossom in the horrible growing conditions at that house, but Miss Renae never managed to do anything right in their blind eyes.” He glowered for a moment. “She always tried to help, but something would go wrong, or she’d get the blame for someone else screwing up. Including me,” he admitted. Reaching into his hat, he pulled out a length of orange extension cord that had been clipped and woven into a circle.

“A few years ago, my eyesight started to go really bad, and one day while trimming the edge of the lawn, I trimmed right through my extension cord,” he told the crowd. “Unfortunately for me, the head nut job of the household saw it happen, and decided it was enough to send me packing immediately.

“Now, I wasn’t able to pack all my items up, as I was ejected from the estate pretty quickly, but that evening during dinner, my wife and I had a visitor. Miss Renae had packed all my items up for me, and snuck them out of the house,” he told them. “She even brought me the broken extension cord. She said it was to help me celebrate getting out of that evil place. She said that it was a sign that I had broken free from hell,” He sniffed and dug out a handkerchief. Dabbing at his eyes, he continued,

“She told me I wasn’t to worry about my income, as she had taken care of it. She even had a part-time job lined up for me, so I wouldn’t get bored,” he chortled, motioning to where Stephan was sitting by Rose. “Apparently, her young man had bought a piece of land and had no idea how to take care of the plants.

“When I heard that this celebration was happening, I took a piece of that cord and wove this,” he held up the orange circle. “It’s to signify that she broke out of hell, too, but found herself in the process.” He quickly stuck it into a drawer and started moving to sit down.

Stephan stood up, walked over to the old man, and helped him sit where Stephan had been listening. Turning, Stephan walked back to the dresser-podium, and turned to face the crowd again. Lifting his hand, he shaded his squinting eyes, and looked at the group.

“I think that if this gets maudlin, I’m going to definitely be murdered when Travis eventually sees the video,” he smiled softly. “So, I’m going to be the last official story today, and ask you to write yours out on the paper on that table,” he motioned to his left. “and put it with your item when you put it in the dresser. That way, it can be told without more people crying.” He grinned at the laughs.

“My item is related to how Renae and I met,” he held up a piece of wire net, grinning at the laughs that came from certain members of the audience.

“When Renae and I were in sixth grade, we met at the chain link fence behind my school. Renae and Rose were home from boarding school for once, and were walking down the block by where my friends and I hung out after school.” He grinned at the memory.

“Leon, my best friend, saw them, and had a huge crush on Rose immediately,” Stephan teased the huge man sitting in the back of the crowd by his wife. “And climbed the fence to meet her.

“Well, I had to join him – hey, we were sixth grade guys!” he protested the laughs. “And my shoelace got wrapped around a broken part of the chain-link at the top of the fence. So, I ended up falling over the fence, but my shoe stayed on, so I ended up just *ahem* hanging around while Leon hit on Rose.” He grinned at the groans.

“Renae climbed the fence to help me get free, and became my other best friend from that point on,” Stephan said. “After she helped me down, she fist bumped me at that chain-link fence, said ‘hey’ and then walked off with her sister.”

“And that’s when he fell in love with Renae,” Leon called out.

“Absolutely – which surprised me most of all!” Stephan called back to more laughter. He grinned and told the group, “Later that night, I went back to that very spot with my daddy’s wire cutters and clipped a chunk out. I knew I’d marry the owner of those gorgeous green eyes someday!” Stephan put the chunk of chain link fence in a drawer while everyone else laughed and whistled. When the group had quieted down again, he continued,

“Feel free to bring your items up whenever. We’ll bury the dresser and sled in this meadow after Travis gets home from the hospital and the doc says he can come out and see everything,” Stephan paused for a minute, took a deep breath, and said,

“We all know that Travis might get pissed about this, and I promise that I will make sure he sees the video when it’s time. I will do everything in my power to help him understand that we aren’t making fun of him with this. Renae has been an important part of our lives for many years, and we are all so happy to have Travis now, but Renae’s his past. She’s also ours. She was the first form of Rose’s twin, and the first way I got to meet my best friend and my true love. We get Travis from now on, but we needed to celebrate Renae for the gifts that she brought to us. It’s my hope – well, our hope,” he motioned to Rose and Rick, who moved to stand beside him. “It’s our hope that Travis will come to celebrate Renae with us when he’s ready, and will see how much our love for her let us love him so much. Thank you for coming.” Rick held up a remote and pushed a button, and the lively music from the beginning of the party started playing again.

For the last few minutes of the video, Travis watched those he considered friends and family move to put paper and items in the dresser and then start to dance and laugh again, celebrating Renae.

Travis’s gaze remained glued to the television screen for several moments after the video ended. Turning to Stephan, he asked,

“Why? Don’t you want me this way?” He motioned to his body.

“Travis,” Stephan scooted to the middle of the couch where he could reach his best friend. “I love you, no matter what shape you may take. Three eyes, fourteen arms and legs, talking hair, anything.”

“Then, why?” Travis asked, anguish spilling from his every pore. “I hated Renae. She was so wrong for me.”

“I know, Love,” Steven replied, gently pulling Travis to him. “She was the wrong shape for you, but that’s all she was – a shape. She was just part of you, your childhood. You have always been Travis, just trapped in a Renae-shaped body. But that body is part of so many memories for so many people. They – We – needed to celebrate those memories. Trav,” Stephan thumbed away the tears streaming down Travis’s face.

“We love Renae because she is part of your foundation. Your experiences as her made you so very strong, and made our lives so wonderful. I know you are Travis, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that you can finally be who you are meant to be, and I love you – and always will.”

“But you love Renae, too?” Travis asked, confused. “How is that possible?”

Stephan wanted nothing more than to snuggle Travis close, but he knew that his best friend – his true love – wouldn’t allow it until he explained things better.

“Trav,” Stephan began carefully. “You know how whenever you get a present, you take forever to open it?”

“Yeah,” Travis nodded, letting Stephan pull him a bit closer to rest his head against Stephan’s broad chest.

“Why do you do that?” Stephan asked quietly.

“Because the way the gift is given matters, and the packaging needs to be appreciated, too!” Travis answered, leaning his head back so he could look at Stephan’s eyes.

“Exactly!” Stephan exclaimed.

“Huh?” Travis questioned.

“Travis, you are the most important gift I’ve ever received – in my entire existence – I hope you know that,” Stephan said. At Travis’s slow nod, he continued, “Well, for twenty-six years, you were wrapped up in a Renae-shaped package. That’s how I got you.

“You see it as you spent so long in the wrong shape and type of body, right?” he asked.

“Yes,” Travis replied. “It was like being in a prison – I was supposed to act by one set of rules, according to the body that people saw, but it wasn’t right. Not for me.”

“And I get that, I do,” Stephan reassured him. “And I’m glad that you finally get to be your true self, Love. But you need to understand that while Renae represents hard times to you – times we all wish you could have avoided – to many of us she was the wonderful wrapping that surrounded the world’s best present for over two decades.” Moving Travis back gently, Stephan took a tissue and wiped the tears that freely flowed down both men’s cheeks.

“You don’t resent my having the hormone injections or the surgery?” Travis’s chin trembled.

“Never!” Stephan told him. “Actually, when you told me that you were trans, I was a bit relieved.”

“What? Why?” Travis exclaimed as Stephan blushed.

“Well, before I met you as Renae, I knew I was gay,” Stephan admitted. “I was so confused when I fell for someone who appeared to be a girl. I had a bit if an identity crisis.”

“For how long?” Travis asked.

“Big time, for about a week, when I started to think about it,” Stephan said. “But when you sat me down to have that talk, I didn’t know that it was at the very back of my mind under mental laundry until I went home that night with a strange sense of relief. Though I was glad to realize that my Gran was right – I fell in love with you, not with the shape you took.”

“I can’t tell if your Gran is the wisest or the corniest person ever to live,” Travis teased Stephan.

“Oh, both,” Stephan reassured him. “Definitely both! So, are you okay with the celebration now?”

Travis sat quietly in Stephan’s arms for several minutes. Then, taking a deep breath, he nodded.

“Yes, I think I am.” Leaning back a bit, he asked seriously,

“Is that how all those people felt?” Travis waved his hand at the television screen and the video they had watched.

“Did you see the last line?” Stephan asked.

“No, I don’t think so,” Travis admitted. “Things were a bit blurry by then.”

“Here,” Stephan used the remote to the point in the video he wanted to show Travis. Pushing play, he waited. The end of the party was playing and it faded to black. After a few seconds, the screen reverse faded back to the party scene, but this time everyone there was gathered behind a huge piece of paper that spelled out in large, colorful words,

“Appreciate the wrapping. Love the gift! We love you, Travis!”

Pausing the video, Stephan and Travis sat and stared quietly at the image. After a few minutes, Travis mumbled something.

“What did you say, Love?” Stephan asked.

“Appreciate the wrapping,” Travis repeated, squeezing closer to Stephan.

“Love the gift,” Stephan replied, gently hugging Travis.

“Love you.”

“Love you back.”

© 2014 Jacqui Pitt

“Apex Predator” by Nicole M. Bailey

Apex Predator

by Nicole M. Bailey

 

One summer, when I was sixteen, I lived on a boat with four men who started out as complete strangers to me. We sailed from San Pedro Harbor to Catalina Island on a 1969 fishing boat. It stunk the way an old wooden pier stinks on a hot day, fish guts and bird shit. We were preparing this boat for its ultimate purpose. It was going to be the vessel an entire documentary film crew lived on. The film was focused on exploring the social life of great whites. Though there had been countless SharkWeek episodes devoted to this topic, our documentary was special because of the mechanical shark. The mechanical shark was a replica of a great white but the inside was completely hollow. The shark opened at the gills. Once opened, a diver could climb inside the shark’s belly and use a joystick mechanism to propel it forward. It was a bizarre invention. Throughout our journey, the shark sat at the stern of the boat, buried under tarps to protect its coloring from the sun. We were traveling with a robot shark.

My mother dropped me off in San Pedro Harbor. I stood – two big black duffel bags weighing me down – and watched her car pull out of the parking lot through the rusty chain link fence separating us. There was enough work on that boat for a crew of twenty men. When I boarded, it barely looked sea worthy. Large flecks of paint chipped away revealing deep rust on the hull. It became clear just how much interning was going to be required. I was less of a film intern and more of a boat lacky. It didn’t bother me. I was happy with the prospect of four long weeks away from home.

I saw the intern opportunity on a website geared toward young filmmakers. The director of the documentary, Mike, interviewed me for the internship at his home in Ranchos Palos Verdes. As my mother drove me to this meeting, I realized we were heading into filthy rich territory. We drove uphill past mansion after mansion. When we arrived, I was painfully embarrassed by our dumb, white Astro van.

To reach Mike’s front door, we passed through the exotic jungle that was merely his front yard. Hulking trees reminding me of Banyons stooped around his doorstep. Tropical vines swallowed the walls of his house so that even the paint color of his home was not visible. Mike’s front door was wide open. We were left trying to decide the best course of action. I was feeling insecure. I hated my outfit. I looked shabby. Why had I picked these shoes when the toes were so scuffed? Mike lumbered to the open door. He was seven feet tall, hulking over us with a blank expression. I noticed he was barefoot. He wore shorts, a t-shirt, and a blue baseball cap with new emblem. The lines in his face were deep set. His skin reminded me of a soft, warn baseball glove. When he said, “Come in,” I though of Lurch. We went into the dining room and Mike peppered me with questions. Some rather direct: “Do you think you can live on a boat for an extended period? Would you say you are tough? Are you afraid of me right now?” Other questions surprised me as he asked them because of their political and philosophical nature: “What do you think of the Iraq war? What is the best part of life? Why do you even care about movies?” When he was finished with his questions, Mike got up from the table and invited me into his backyard. He opened the wide, glass sliding doors and followed me into the yard. I knew we were close to the ocean, but I had not realized that Mike’s house was perched on the edge of a sea cliff. The ocean was breaking in wild waves and mist below us. No fence or any kind of barrier kept us from the endless drop, just a low makeshift wall of rocks. He stood beside me, gazing down the cliff, when he said, “Are you sure you want to do this? because I can’t waste my time babying some teenage girl. You sure you can rough it?” I said I was sure. I said it louder than I’d said anything else that day, as if yelling would convince Mike I wasn’t weak. The view caught me so off-guard, I hadn’t noticed the wide, bright yellow boa constrictor curled up in the corner of the yard. When he saw my eyes drift to the snake, Mike said, “Oh. Would you like to meet Stevie?”

The main reason for going to Catalina was so the dive crew could finally test the robot shark in the ocean. The documentary would be filmed in rough waters off the coast of Mexico in a well-known white shark migration path. During my time, the boat crew was made up of four men: Peter, Mark, Paul, and Colin. Peter was our captain and the head of our boat family. He was kind and had spent most of his life on the ocean with Sea Shepherd. Mark, our resident marine biologist, was loud and domineering with a foul mouth that continually embarrassed me. Mark was known for his work with white sharks in South Africa. He swam with them and never used a cage. He also never missed a chance to mention it. Paul was the boat’s muralist and “beautification expert,” as I liked to call him. He was quirky and his Canadian accent often made me laugh. Most of my work involved helping Paul chip rust off the boat, repainting the bunks, head, galley, decks and rails. Mike hired Paul to paint a giant white shark with his mouth wide open on the bow of the boat. It was supposed to draw attention to the project and look cool on film. Colin was 19 and the other intern onboard. He’d been with the project since its inception. Somehow, his father knew Peter and Mike. Though we were both technically film interns, the time we spent together on the boat involved very little filmmaking.

Colin was the first person to greet me when I arrived. He helped me aboard and led me to the bunks so I could get rid of my duffel bags. All over the deck were tangled messes of bright orange extension cords. These cords were plugged into countless devices: sanders, radios, mysterious wide black boxes I was told had something to do with the bilge. We weren’t scheduled to leave the harbor for a week and a half. Plenty of time, Peter said, to make sure she wouldn’t sink.

While we lived in the harbor, we learned to be a crew. Paul and Peter were eager to teach me things about the boat while Mark lectured Colin and me on the nature of the white shark. Peter was my favorite. He felt like a father, an uncle and a best friend wrapped in one. His genial nature balanced out the strong personalities of goofy Paul and intense Mark. At the end of our long workdays, Peter would let us fool around with the high tech, professional cameras we’d get to use once we were in Catalina. We were especially excited because Peter said Colin and I would be responsible for shooting important B-rolls while the shark was lifted off the deck by crane for the first time.

Paul and I made easy dinners each night from whatever canned goods we had available. We’d sit in lawn chairs and eat on the deck, feeling the cool breeze off the harbor. After dinner, Peter stood far off from us smoking tobacco out of an old pipe. Those first two weeks acquired a dream like quality. Our days were filled with hard manual labor, and our evenings were spent listening to the slow, steady lap of water against the dock.

The truth of the matter was I hadn’t anticipated becoming seasick. I’d been sailboat racing a couple times so I just assumed that once we took to the high seas, I would adjust easily. I was wrong. Mike was scheduled to visit the boat for days, but he kept postponing. He was supposed to double check our progress before directing us to set out for Catalina. On a Tuesday morning at 4:45 am, Colin was shaking me awake. “All hands on deck,” he whispered. Through the fog of sleep, I heard those words and panicked. “Is it a fire?” I said. He laughed. “No, we’re leaving today.” Mike called Peter to say he wanted us to go ahead to Catalina. His schedule was packed with financing meetings, and he had no idea when he would be able to get out and see us. The boar erupted in activity as we rushed around preparing to leave dock. Once we completed our own tasks, Colin and I retreated from the activity to the edge of the bow. We sat high up, swinging our legs against the side of the ship. We were finally going to get that robot shark in the water.

Before we actually set course for Catalina, Mike asked Peter to swing the boat past his home so he could film us passing his backyard cliff in morning light. The morning was unusually still and clear, nothing like the usual dreary, overcast setting. The sun was out and burning by 8:00 am. The sheen off the water burned my eyes. I went below deck to grab my sunglasses, and when I came back we were making wide swings on the ocean so Mike could get his perfect shot. If you squinted, you could see him on the edge of the cliff in a white t-shirt. I thought of Stevie curled up in the corner of the yard, feet upon feet of bright yellow scales, tanning and enjoying the comfortable life of a wealthy, man-crushing snake.

It was rapidly apparent that things were going from bad to worse in my head and stomach. What took about an hour and a half aboard an average Catalina Express took about six hours on our bucket. Instead of gliding over the waves the way a speedboat or even a sailboat would, we were pounding every swell we met. The boat rocked unpredictably so that I could never rock with it. I thought if I remained on the bow and stared at the horizon, I would make it to Catalina without looking like the seasick dork I actually was. Colin had gone below for a bottle of water. When he returned, he saw my face painted with sickness and said, “Are you alright?” As I answered him, I vomited. I was careful not to get it on deck, mostly because I didn’t want anyone telling Mike I’d barfed on deck. The slurry of my insides landed, an oily slick on the foaming water below. Colin ran to get Paul. When Paul saw me, he said, “Oh no. Oh no. Now you’re green.” He tried to persuade me to go below deck, but everything I knew about boats told me it would only be worse down there. He wasn’t listening, though. He stood behind me, reached under my armpits and pulled me from my seated position on the edge of the bow. In a strange type of torture, he told me to walk down the stairs of the deck holding onto the rail. I couldn’t see straight. With every step I took another swell smashed into us, the boat tumbled forward and lurched backward at once. I don’t remember how I made it to my bunk, but there I was lying on my back, moaning. I slipped in and out of fevered dreams. I was convinced the boat was somersaulting in the water. When I passed out, I dreamed of robot sharks. During the boat’s somersault, our shark came alive and he multiplied. Now a school of robot sharks swam toward me with their jaws mechanically opening and snapping shut.

I woke to the comforting snores of Paul, Mark, and Colin. Mercifully, I was no longer sick. I climbed out of my bunk and grabbed a beach towel to wrap around my shoulders against the chill of morning. On deck, Peter stood at the stern, smoking his pipe and peeking under the tarp at the shark. I cleared my throat loudly. He turned and smiled, his coke bottle glasses fogged over by morning mist. He said, “You’re alive. Now you’ll never be sick again. Now you’re a sailor. Coffee? Black, I’ll bet.” He scuttled past me and into the galley.

During our first week in Catalina, we accomplished plenty. We tested the crane and worked out a good system for using it. Paul finished his mural on the bow of the boat. It was a menacing white shark with a wide-open red mouth and crooked rows of teeth bared. During our second week, Peter went to dry land to check his cell phone messages and call Mike. Our boat was too big for the resort slips on Catalina, so we anchored further down the island, a great distance from Avalon, but near a boys summer camp. Some camp counselors paddled out to us in kayaks with rosy-cheeked ten-year olds. “They wanted to get up close to the shark boat,” the leader said.

When Peter returned from dry land, the dingy he captained was packed with food supplies. Peter hollered for Colin to grab the rope ladder and buoys. Paul and Mark came to deck when they heard Peter’s voice. These days they argued in the galley, daily. We’d been living in close quarters together for close to three weeks, and Mark and Paul were really starting to get on each other’s nerves. Once Peter was tied off against the boat, he passed the supplies up the ladder to Colin and me. We loaded them on the deck while Mark leaned over the rail shouting at Peter for details. “What did Mike say?” Peter’s brow furrowed. It was obvious that Peter wanted to get the damn dingy unloaded first. He kept answering all of Mark’s questions with, “I will tell you everything Mike said when we’re done.”

The last couple days, I’d been able to tell something wasn’t quite right. Peter, Mark and Paul kept standing around in a little cluster, farther from the interns than usual, and arguing. Colin noticed it first. He kept saying, “I don’t know what’s up, but something’s up.” Once the dingy was unloaded, Peter came into the galley where we were all waiting for him. Mark was brewing tea but tension enveloped him as he did so. He leaned with his back against the galley counter space with his arms folded and resting on top of his belly. Peter ducked in and held a hand up to Mark before he could start talking. We’d all gotten pretty good at silent communication. Living in such a tiny space together allowed us to read each other’s nonverbal cues expertly. “Now, I know,” Peter said, “you’re probably wondering what Mike had to say. And I’ll tell you.” He held his palm up to Mark again, “But first, I want absolute guarantees that once I tell you, we’ll all get straight to work with no complaints.” Mark sighed with his whole body from the top of his head to his pinky toe. Peter sighed back, mocking him. Mark squinted his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose and stared at Peter.

“He’s coming out in two days with the dive team and the rest of the film crew. So we need to clean up the bunks and the head. We need to get ready for our living space to shrink further.” Peter went up the stairs from the galley before Mark had a chance to reply. Mark’s face was a cartoon shade of red. He followed Peter out and above deck shouting about the possibility of someone being killed in that contraption. Paul sat with his elbows on the kitchen table, and his head in his hands. “Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy.”

As interns, we were confused by Mark’s anger. We’d waited for this call from Mike since we anchored. The whole reason for us to even be offshore from Catalina was so Mike could bring out the dive and camera crews to test the damn shark! Listening to the heated argument above deck, it was clear Mark thought this was a very bad time to test the shark. Three days before, he found a fundamental problem. The escape release was sticking. Mark wasn’t the diver who would be inside the shark during filming, but he continually asked Peter to let him climb inside it. He kept saying the only way he would feel good about this project was if he, a very experienced diver, got to climb into the shark himself and see how the whole thing worked. Mark was always pulling the tarp back and fiddling with the gills (where the shark would open) when Peter wasn’t looking. Peter was so tired of Mark’s obsession that he promised once we anchored in Catalina that Mark could get inside the shark, on deck, and inspect the machine.

When we pulled the tarps back to let Mark in, we were all thoroughly annoyed with him. I think Paul had half a mind to fire up the crane, pick up the shark and drop Mark into the water with no dive tank on his back. While Mark was inside the belly of the shark, he found that the emergency escape lever kept sticking. From inside of the thing, he was giving a muffled lecture on diver safety and the possibility of encountering particularly aggressive sharks. “Sharks are smarter than you think, guys! It’s entirely possible one of them could decide to ram this sonuvabitch.” When he pulled the lever, the shark’s head would open away from its gills only slightly, not enough for the diver to make a quick escape. Mark saw this as a fatal error. “The whole point of the escape lever is for the diver to get out and fast!” He shouted this several times a day with foamy flecks of spit in the corner of his mouth.

I don’t think Peter disagreed with Mark, but I do think he was trying to come up with a delicate way to present this problem to Mike. Our little expedition was plagued with minor problems, mostly to do with the age of our boat. Still, each problem frustrated Peter because he’d have to go Mike, explain the problem, present the solution and then get money, supplies, whatever we needed to make the solution happen. Even though Peter and Mike had known each other for over thirty years, it was clear Peter hated telling him about any of our problems. None of us wanted to be in trouble with Mike. Though he was rarely around, he haunted everything we did. This was his project, his money, his robot shark – no one wanted to fuck anything up. Peter wasn’t eager to explain that the entire, expensive centerpiece of the film had a pretty significant malfunction no one thought to check. Mike and the divers were coming, and Mark wasn’t about to let the stickiness of the escape lever go.

Now that we had an exact date for Mike and the extended crew’s arrival, Paul and I had our own problems. The deck needed to be repainted, and it needed to be finished and dry before Mike arrived. It was a task we kept putting off because it was so tedious. Peter warned us over and over that if we didn’t start painting the deck soon, we would be in a world of hurt when Mike arrived and this most basic task remained incomplete. The good news was that two days before we heard Mike was coming, we’d finally started to paint. The entire top deck was close to complete. The bad news was we still needed to paint the lower deck and stairs.

While Peter, Mark and Mike stood next to the shark arguing, Colin went to the Captain’s quarters to organize camera equipment. I went to the top deck to gather paint supplies so I could start on the stairs. In my haste, I kicked over a can of grey paint. It rolled on its side and oozed all over the freshly painted white deck. I stood motionless and horrified. If anyone saw I’d made this mistake, I was in for some real trouble. In two seconds, I’d created a ridiculous amount of stress and even more work for everyone onboard. In a flash of what I thought was brilliance I noticed Paul had left the turpentine out. I’d seen him use a rag dipped in turpentine to clean up small areas of his mural. The liquid acted like an eraser.

I plunged the nearest rag into the turpentine. In a panic, I got on my hands and knees and began wiping at the spreading spot. I noticed that while the turpentine was erasing the paint I’d spilled, it was also eating into the clean white of the deck. The hideous brown we’d worked so hard to cover was exposed. I’d have to fix this new mistake once I’d wiped up the gray paint. I wasn’t feeling very well. It came on so suddenly. My head was fuzzy. I saw bright little pinpricks of light, like fireflies in the middle of the day. Then I was sick. Everything was spinning. I stood up to call out for someone, but when I did, I stood so suddenly I slipped on the mess before me and fell back against the rail. I was thinking in slow motion. Everything I saw and did took several seconds to register so that in the same moment I felt lucky to be saved by the rail, I realized mid-air I was falling into the water. I hit the surface flat on my back. Even in my haze, I felt the thwack of water against my skin, like diving into cement. Underwater, my mind was working but my limbs weren’t. My deepest survival instincts were saying I needed to swim, but I couldn’t get my arms and legs to cooperate. I was drowning. My brain said it back to me, “You are drowning.” I opened my eyes and could see clearly underwater as if I was wearing goggles. I felt the tangle of kelp against my legs. Glistening fish swam around me like I wasn’t even there. I was dying the way fog slowly rolls through a city. The water was so clear I could see the lines in my palms. My lungs were preparing to explode when through the kelp forest I saw a gigantic white body swimming towards me. It’s back half was swaying in a powerful, familiar way. I could see the trail of bubbles and the rippling of water like sound waves from its tail fin. Tail fin? My brain caught up with my vision and interpreted a white shark. His eyes were ink black points against his head. Multitudes of tiny little scars lined his snout and rows upon rows of jagged teeth grew from his pink gums. When he saw me, he pumped his tail fin harder racing toward me. I thought, “He is ugly beautiful.” That’s when he swallowed me.

***

When I came to I was surprised to find myself lying on warm sand. I could hear Paul, Colin and Peter talking but I couldn’t open my eyes or answer them. Though my brain seemed to be working, my initial thought was that inhaling too much turpentine had caused me to go brain dead. Someone was spilling cool water over my forehead, “Kid. Hey, Kid. Time to wake up now.” Paul was trying to bring me back to consciousness. I willed my eyes to open. It was like lifting lead weights with my eyelids. Through my lids, I could see Paul and Colin dripping wet. I moved my head to locate Peter, but it was impossible. My head weighed a thousand pounds. In the distance, I could hear Peter say to Paul and Colin he was going to give me five more minutes before calling the paramedics. “No, no, no,” Paul was saying, “The kid’ll come to. She just opened her eyes. She’s rousting.” I didn’t want the paramedics coming out and embarrassing me further. If they came, Mike would surely learn of my mistake, and he might send me home. He’d made it perfectly clear that I couldn’t be a liability for the team. I forced myself to my elbows in a sloppy reclined position and croaked, “I’m alright. I’m alright.” Peter was kneeling in front of me asking me to look right at him. I opened my eyes as wide as I could and peered into his thick glasses. Many Peters floated in front of me.

“What about the shark?” I asked.

“What shark?”

“The shark that swallowed me.”

Paul’s voice entered the picture. “You must be thinking of the robot shark, kid. Your brain’s fried.”

“No, no,” I said. “I saw a great white shark.”

“Impossible,” Colin said, “we’re on the wrong side of the island for that. We jumped in and grabbed you. You were sinking like a stone. There was no shark.”

I knew it was true that great white shark sightings on this side of Catalina’s coast were extremely rare.

“Oh Jesus,” Peter said, “Would you look at that?” My eyes were open just enough for me to see Mark hopping around on the deck in the distance and yelling, “Shark! Shark! You gotta see this thing you guys!”

“I never met someone so full of hot air and shit,” Paul said. The guys helped me to my fight, and we piled into the dingy. We were about fifty yards from the boat when Peter cut the engine. “Holy hell,” he said and pointed. Circling the boat was a lone fin. We sat quietly watching the animal make wide circles around the boat. Mark was hollering at us, “Don’t move. Don’t do anything.” We waited for five minutes while the shark swam around and around. “He’s looking for me,” I said. “Shhh!” Peter cupped his hand over my mouth.

Just as soon as the shark appeared, he vanished. We waited in silence for the fin to emerge from the water again. When it didn’t, we flew across the surface as fast as the dingy would take us and scrambled aboard the boat. Mark was wearing a smug smile. “So, Peter,” he began, but Peter held his hand up and said, “I’ll talk to Mike about the fucking escape lever.”

© 2014 Nicole M. Bailey