Usually, I hate rewriting things. This one, though, was original. And someone told me it was good, so two years later I rewrote it, and here it is. It came from the feeling you get when you swim just a little too far out in the ocean and look down. Just that feeling of staring down into the ocean and not knowing what’s swimming down there in the black below your kicking feet…
It was late on the first day when they ran out of food – they’d only taken enough for lunch. The last of the water ran out before noon on day three, although they tried to ration it. The fact was, the best precaution they could have taken was to watch the shore, because while they fished and laughed, it drifted further and further away from them until it was only a pale line, and after that it was nothing at all.
They were fishing for their lives now. The jokes had lost their humour – it dried with their mouths. They’d set the fishing rods at the end of the boat. Charley sat next to them, in case something decided to bite. Judging by the way they’d been going, that was unlikely. After the single Bass they’d caught on the first day (and eaten on the second), there had been nothing new.
‘Told you we should’ve come out in something bigger than a dingy,’ Mark said. It wasn’t the first time he’d made the complaint, and it got the scowl it deserved.
‘What for? So we could float around out here with some extra leg room?’
‘Shelter, for one. Bit more visibility. Plus, maybe it would have a bloody working motor.’
Charley sniffed. ‘Fat lot of good that does now,’ he said.
They were silent for a while, and then Mark started talking about food again. It had been both of their favourite subjects for a long time, now. Yesterday, Charley had started talking about water, but that was no fun at all. When the sun sizzled the sweat from your brow and made every metal part of the boat burn like a frying pan, there was nothing pleasant about water conversation.
‘Wouldn’t mind a burger or five, eh Charley? Onions, beetroot, egg, bacon – the lot.’
‘Like you get at Benny’s?’
‘Yeah, but with double cheese. They never give you enough cheese.’
‘You know what I could go for? One of those big pork roasts Molly used to make for us, remember?’
‘Ah yeah, with that thick sauce of hers? I’d eat five roasts about now.’
They were practically drooling by this stage, but it was the best way to pass the time they knew of, besides keeping their eyes peeled for shore.
‘Just in case. If we catch anything, anything at all, we split it down the middle, right? Even, no matter who reels it in or what?’
‘Of course, man. Same for water.’
They’d had the conversation before, but the sun was making their minds tired and hazy and it was an important point.
‘I want you to know something.’ His face, usually so jolly and full of laughter, looked hollow and serious. ‘If I die…’
‘Hang on a minute – ’
‘If I die, I want you to eat me.’
‘What?’ The look on Mark’s face was almost comical. If only it had been a joke, Charley might have laughed.
‘I mean it,’ he said. ‘I don’t care about a bloody sea burial or any of that junk. If I die, you eat me and live, okay?’
‘Alright. Okay, but you eat me too, alright? If I die.’
Charley snorted. ‘What kind of a deal is that? Not an ounce of meat on you, mate. Might as well eat a sack of toothpicks.’
For some reason, the feeble joke had them both really laughing for the first time since they lost sight of shore. Mark’s hat fell off as he threw his head back, and Charley even slapped his knee.
Just then, there was a loud splash from somewhere nearby, followed by a plopping sound. They opened their eyes to find a fish, about the size of a man’s palm, flopping in the middle of the boat. Their laughter evaporated immediately, replaced by total shock.
The fish was a deep gold that was almost a red, and it was still moist from the ocean. It looked like a tender steak lying at the bottom of the boat. Frying, almost.
Mark dove for it, snatched it up in his hands and crammed the whole thing into his mouth before Charley could blink. He swallowed it without chewing and then gave a sigh of satisfaction.
Before he could thing, Charley stood up and pushed him onto his ass, making the boat rock so hard it was all he could do to keep balance.
‘What the hell!’ he shouted.
‘I’m sorry! I couldn’t stop myself. I just… I’m so hungry, Charley.’
‘Well how d’you think I feel?’ He could have punched him then, could have laid into him with blow after blow, but he didn’t. He was still his friend, after all. One fish, he told himself, couldn’t make a difference. Only it did.
Mark opened his mouth to say something, and then seemed to choke. He clutched his stomach. He looked up at Charley and gasped like a fish gasping.
‘Mark? What are you doing? What’s wrong? Hey!’ He lunged just as Mark got half to his feet and folded over the side of the boat. He managed to grab hold of his waist and pull him most of the way back, but there was something pulling against him.
It wasn’t Mark – his hands were both on the inside of the boat, trying to pull himself back in. But there was a thin line, almost invisible, coming out of his mouth and trailing down into the depths of the ocean. He was making straining, gurgling sounds in the back of his throat. It made Charley think of someone trying to suck down a pound of snails. He pulled as hard as he could, but whatever he was struggling against was stronger than both of them. Another wrench and the odd sounds were cut off as his head went into the water. The boat was now leaning dangerously to one side and Charley’s grip had slid down to the ankles. Half of his effort was spent on staying up.
All of a sudden, Mark’s boots came off completely and he fell into the sea with a splash. Charley flew into the other side of the boat and it rocked so violently he had to grab the edge to keep from falling off.
As soon as he could stand again, he lurched to the other side and stared over. By then, Mark was already nothing more than a barely visible silhouette sinking further and further into the darkness. For the first time, Charley noticed how dark the water was here. He didn’t think it was like this anywhere else – usually the ocean was dark blue, but from where he was standing it looked pitch black down there. Like they were floating miles and miles above some impossibly deep abyss.
At last, Mark’s form disappeared from view and Charley sunk back onto his wooden seat, shocked. It had been so quick, he thought – less than a minute from beginning to end. Suddenly, there was no Mark. In under sixty seconds, he’d gone from being a living, breathing person to a memory.
Charley stared down at the lone boot lying at the other end of the boat – the other had fallen over the side in the chaos. He was so hungry, he thought, so ravenously hungry. Put a bit of Molly’s sauce on that boot and he’d eat it, for sure. Wouldn’t even think twice.
He looked up at the sun and tried to breathe. He needed to calm down if he was going to survive, he thought. He had to just think, and fish, and hope for rain.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, though, and he didn’t think he wanted to catch what was waiting down there.
After an hour or two he wasn’t sure there had been anyone in the boat with him after all, it had all been a dream. Maybe that was the lack of sleep, though, or this maddening thirst. Mark had been a good man, even if he did eat that damned fish. That tender, red, fish…
He’d been dozing, his hat down and his eyes closed, but he opened them wide when he heard that sound. He stared at the bottom of the boat. This one was a little fatter than the last one, he thought. And it looked even juicer in the afternoon light, even redder. Fresh.
He shook his head and stood up, taking a moment to balance himself and stop his vision from spinning. He stepped around the fish, picked up the boot and then used it to flick the flopping thing over the side. Then he sat down again and closed his eyes.
Plop! Plop! Plop!
He kept his eyes closed and shivered. He tried to swallow the drool that was gathering in his mouth.
He tried to wait, to see what would happen. Surely, he thought, they’d dry out eventually, or die. Maybe then he could snatch one up. But the hours passed, and still they went on flopping and struggling in the puddle at the bottom of the boat. Every now and again he heard another plop!
At last, he couldn’t stand it anymore and he opened his eyes. There was a great pile of the red gold fish lying there, now. A mass of writhing scaly bodies, so wet and juicy. He could just imagine how they’d taste, could practically feel the cool flesh against his tongue already.
Charley began to shake uncontrollably, but he did not reach for the fish. He drooled and he felt the sun, and heard the sloshing of that horrible undrinkable water around him, but still he restrained himself. He would not eat, he would not eat, he told himself.
As the sun fell on the horizon, he was still telling himself, but he didn’t quite remember why. Surely, if he bit hard enough, he could sever those thin lines that hung down into the water. It was worth a try, wasn’t it? For one of those tasty things, it was surely worth a try.