My flash fiction tale, featured in the Terrible Minds Vacation Hell Contest is below. Skip to the Post Mortem section if you’ve already read it and just want to read the behind the scenes. For all, please remember that if you like this tale best, make your vote count in the contest, when the time comes.
Thanks for reading!
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by Keith Karabin
You hit the water like a wall. It grips you like a slick fist; you flail to freedom only to slip back into the cloying vise. You cough. You spit as your sinuses burn with salt water. You strain against waves created by your own struggle, but there is no purchase.
The cruise ship is a three story monolith tearing through the sea like a taffeta gown. You are below its notice. The ship’s progress felt leisurely while leaning on the rail. Now it speeds past you at a maddening pace. You claw at the water and roar with defiance, but you are unable to cut though the wake of the ship. It towers over you, storms past you.
You see the golden glow of the dance deck, thirty feet above. So welcome, so achingly close. You beat the surface of the sea with your fist but the stoic deep takes no notice. You scream until your throat is raw, beg until your words grow shrill, but nothing turns the ship.
The spinning lights of the dance floor fade into the night as you paddle furiously behind. You reach out to shadowy forms, silhouetted against the festive aurora, but even as you grasp at air, your stomach sinks. Your words, mere croaks, are swallowed by the night. You watch the lights of the ship until they become indistinguishable from the few pale stars on the horizon.
The adrenaline seeps from your body, and glacial dread replaces it. The truth sinks to your marrow.
You float alone in black silence.
You scramble in a circle, a hopeless parabolic twist, and find only darkness. The handful of stars in the sky only serve to distort your perspective. The sliver of moon is so low on the horizon that it makes every slight, stirring wave seem like an advancing shape.
Or was that an advancing shape? Your mind stabs you with panic and you push against the sea in a reflexive feint. You feel only the chill caress of the ocean. In fact you feel nothing. Nothing below, nothing beside. With only your head above the waves, you are immersed in formless, frigid space. Your stomach lurches with vertigo and your head drops below the waterline. You gasp and inadvertently swallow the slick brine. It erupts as a belching gag when you break the surface.
You force yourself to breathe slowly. You begin to measure time in the scissor kicks of your legs and the swing of your arms, an encircling movement like a repeatedly failed embrace. You try to count to one hundred but lose the thread somewhere in the thirties. You try again.
Scrabbling tendrils swarm your leg. The noise you make is senseless, primal and terrified. You punch, slow and impotent. You kick, as though through syrup. The touch is gone. The stillness returns. The throb of your heart ebbs.
Your mind attempts to wander, but encounters only gibbering hysteria waiting down every path. It lurks outside of this present, hateful moment, and it’s closing in. Like the feeling that a hungry horde lurks out there, just a breath past your fingertips or just a hair below your kicking feet. You shiver as you try to force that thought from your mind. To no avail. You begin to pull your arms and legs tighter with each movement, feeling the phantom caress of sleek skin just outside your reach. A closer kick, a tighter stroke.
You begin to sink.
You force your limbs to extend with a whimper. You focus on your breathing as your thighs begin to ache
You rise above the waves again.
A brutal shove pounds the small of your back. Your head tosses beneath the waves and your eyes sting with salt. You scream into the abyssal expanse but a twisted moan and large bursting bubbles are your only rewarded. You try to catch a glimpse of your attacker through the saffron-black haze, but a shifting, circling shadow is all that remains.
You break the surface and cry your protest to the wretched stars.
You pant as your spine dances with the electric sensation of a presence, or many, somewhere in the cold darkness. Your breath comes hoarse. Then it comes naturally. You lick the sweat and salt from your lips. Twin bands of pain begin to pull taught within your shoulders with every motion.
You attempt to ignore the pain as you scan the small, cresting waves for any sign of that which you are certain swims ever closer. Pain, breath, salt and black, flickering sea become your world.
You are stirred from an exhausted stupor as the soles of your feet meet with something solid. A slope stretches out below you. You stand, welcoming the pressure of gravity with tears. A sandbar, your mind cries. You must have drifted to it. Hope swells within you. You reach your hands to the heavens.
You stumble, as the land shifts and plummets. You are sucked below the surf in the overpowering eddy of some great startled behemoth’s passing. You scramble against the undeniable grip of the creature’s wake. Churning sea surrounds you as the pull grows weaker.
You return to air and sky shaking at the enormity of that which lurks below you. Around you. You are empty. Past tears. A speck of meat in the endless dark.
You bob in the languid sway of the stygian sea. For an eternity there is nothing but the rocking, the aching of your limbs and the tingling dread of the predatory scrutiny which surrounds you.
“Come back,” you whisper, unsure whether it is a plea to the departed ship, or an invitation to the horde of the deep.
* * *
You. I said you. Why did I say you?
That’s the question I’ve heard most often while editing and after posting my flash fiction horror story “Deep” at Terrible Minds.
The “You” perspective is rarely used. It’s called “Second Person perspective.” Even the name sounds alien, perhaps because of all the fame First Person Shooters and the narrative commonality of Third Person perspective. I fell in love with Second Person writing a video game. It worked well to personalize the narrative, but Second Person in a video game was different than the traditional usage in a story, because once the text was done, the player regained control of the character. Traditional Second Person perspective puts the reader into the story, makes them the center of the action, but takes away their control of the action. That is a horrific concept, in that it fosters powerlessness, and powerlessness was one of the main themes that I wanted to delve into with a tale of floating alone in the ocean. Floating alone in the ocean, was another, less subtle terrifying theme which I wanted to explore.
My infatuation with fear of the ocean (as Shark Week will show us that many of our fears are also infatuating) was born on early morning fishing trips to the bay and inlet off the coast of New Jersey in nothing more than my father’s fourteen foot long Boston Whaler. Sharks frightened me, sure. But Jersey sharks scared me somehow, a little less. They were like neighbors compared to Great Whites. The ocean itself, though? I would often picture the endless expanse below us, surrounding us, swallowing us. That terrified me. And I would do it over and over again, like worrying a hurt tooth with my tongue.
To this fear I added the fear of the unknown—what was it that surrounded you in the dark? Sharks? Many sharks shove their prey first. What was it you stood on in the deep? Was it a whale? The immensity of whales in the endless water below our little boat used to frighten me through hours of infatuation.
We end with fear of our own insignificance, as you float alone in the wide, dark sea.
Loss of control. The ocean. The unknown. Insignificance. With this story I shared my fears with you in story form. Yet another reason why I said “You.”
Want to share your fears below? Please do. Also, if you have any comments and want to continue the discussion at Terrible Minds, just click. Or if you want to start a new conversation below, again, feel free. I give you back your control.