It seems a bit self indulgent, but I wanted to post this because, well, I can. I haven't written much fiction in the last year or two, so this was a fun exercise for me. I hope that you take the time to read it and let me know what you think in the comment section.
This is an early draft of a story I wrote one night after a pool session. It stems from an offhand comment, a leg cramp and an unconfirmed news report about a twenty foot shark in La Jolla. I hope you like it. -- Ryan
I was a half mile out, my tinted goggles turning an already leaden sky into a drunkard’s charcoal Rorschach blot, when I lost the use of my leg. The spasm hit hard, starting in the base of my foot and curling my toes, then moved upward, constricting my calf muscle and pulling the right half of my lower body into a fetal position. This is an exceedingly inconvenient situation in which to find yourself while swimming.
I rolled over on my back and willed my leg to loosen up. When that didn’t work, I alternated massaging it and stroking to keep my head above the surface. In the distance, sea lions barked along the cliffs, their yelping rolling across the water like a badly damaged car alarm.
The day started out simple. It was easier than normal to park at the beach, probably something to do with the late November cold. It was breezy and grey, but otherwise unremarkable. The Pacific was way too calm to surf, which was why I chose to swim.
I had the beach nearly to myself as I zipped up my wetsuit and licked the insides of my goggle lenses. I waded into the tiny breakers and shivered as the water I pulled into the suit warmed to body temperature. Satisfied that my goggles were staying dry, I stroked for the buoy.
Which brings me back to my leg, locked up and dangling, leaving me unable to swim as the wind and chop picked up. I kept trying to straighten out my leg, but the muscles just wouldn’t release. They stayed tighter than coiled pythons and struggling only made it worse. I looked back toward the shore, at the closed up lifeguard tower, knowing that in the off season, even my hot pink swim cap wouldn’t be enough to bring the cavalry.
Rolling over onto my stomach, I breast stroked the last few yards to the buoy, my leg poking up through the growing swell like Nessie’s neck in that hoax photo. I grabbed hold of the buoy with one hand and went to work on my calf with the other.
The water at the half mile point is deep, but not so deep that on a clear day you can’t see the bottom. Today was not a clear day. Every time my head slipped below the surface, I could watch shadows playing in the depths. Large and irregular, they were probably rocks, or stands of kelp that at lower tide would be lying across the surface. Probably. In the chop, the shadows wavered and swayed, dancing like phantoms shot in night vision. When my head came out of the water, I heard the sea lions, and the theme from Jaws. Which is when I saw the dorsal fin.
If I had to make a list of all the stupid things I do that could get me killed, I have to say that my weekend buoy tag would not be on it. Maybe some of my more harebrained hill descents on a bike with only an inch-thick collection of foam stripping around my head, sure, but not this. I’m normally perfectly at home in the water. Normally.
The fin, a few dozen yards away, disappeared behind a peak and didn’t show up in the trough. Forgetting my leg, I spun in circles, searching. Rising and falling with the ocean. Waiting to feel the brush against my leg. The sharp pain and the tug. The coppery tang atop the salt taste of the Pacific, like licking a battery. The water filling my lungs…
The fin came at me straight on. I grabbed at the buoy, but it was useless to me, a big plastic cue ball bobbing on a chain. I couldn’t climb it. The fin got closer, black and roughly triangular. Closer and closer in the warped out time as I wondered whether the wetsuit really would aid in the return of my body to my loved ones.
Closer and closer until I could just about touch it. I shut my eyes and waited. Nothing. No sharp pain. No tug. I opened my eyes.
The fin angled away and I could see the arched back of a dolphin.
That’s when, a half mile out, I lost control of my entire body. I spent several minutes with my eyes closed, doing a solid jellyfish imitation and listening to the sea lions.
Something brushed my leg. My eyes opened. Something tugged my foot. I looked up.
“Oh good,” she said. “I really didn’t want to have to report a body in the water.”
I gawked, unaware of the million witty responses arcing through my brain. We bobbed there, eyeless behind tinted and mirrored plastic lenses, nondescript beneath day-glow swim caps that advertised past events and companies we’d never actually heard of.
“Hello?” She splashed water across my face. I coughed and sputtered. “Anyone in there?”
I coughed out some more water and promptly took a swell in the face.
“How the hell did you make it this far?” She looked at the beach options in front of and behind us as though she’d just realized that they were on the moon. I could swear I had a solid joke on the tip of my tongue.
“Did you see the dolphin?” It was funny in my mind.
“There are dolphins out here today?”
“Just saw the one.”
“Then there won’t be any sharks.”
“That’d be nice.”
“What were you doing?”
“Impersonating a jellyfish.”
“I thought I saw a shark.”
“Have you ever been out here before, or did you pick up that wetsuit on the way over?”
“It was actually a dolphin.” As I spoke, she cocked her head and looked me square in the lenses. The swell picked her up and for a second she hovered above me, an aquatic angel sitting in judgment of my mental capacity, and clearly unimpressed.
“Lucky you,” she said and turned away, dolphin kicking through a wave. “You should head in before anything else happens.”
And like that, she was gone, under the water and behind the swell. I caught sight of her a dozen yards away before I turned and headed back the way I had come.
I stroked hard in, body surfing the rising swell as often as it would carry me, until my hands finally dug into the sand. Running across the beach, I stripped off my wetsuit and grabbed my gear bag. I blew past the showers and made straight for my car. Sopping wet and salty, I tossed a towel down on my leather seat and climbed in. I headed for the far shore of the cove as fast as I could, parking in a red zone and jogging into the park at the top of the stairs. I went to the rail and looked down onto the sand, hoping to spot a gear bag, which was when I realized that I had no idea why I had come this way, or what I would say if the girl with the mirrored goggles, who had saved me from my encounter with the dolphin, had actually been there.
Christ almighty, man, you don’t even know who she is, what her swimsuit looks like, shouted the voice at the back of my mind that tells me when I’m being an idiot.
Shut up, I fired back, I do too know.
Then what color was it?
And I froze. I was right, or rather my subconscious hall monitor was. Would I even know it if I saw her here? Why did I even care? She was just the girl who came after the dolphin. The Dolphin Girl, now that I had made the connection.
And so, standing there, bare arms freezing to damp metal and staring out to sea, I saw her again. I hadn’t seen her approach me in the water. I hadn’t seen her suit. Still, I knew it was her.
It wasn’t that no one else was in the water. It was the movement. Something in the serpentine grace of her stroke, even at this distance, failed to allow for any other possibility. I’d spotted her. Now what? I walked down to the sludgy sand at the waterline. The cold Pacific sucked at my toes. I curled them under my feet and shivered.
From the water’s edge she was lost and I poked around the cove. If she had any gear she’d left it in her car. I walked into the water. Calf-deep, seriously considering going after her. To what end?
Hey baby, you’ve seen my jellyfish impersonation, wanna see my…what? Shark? Eel? Garibaldi? What was there to gain by going out again? What was there to lose by staying shorebound?
“You’d better head in,” she’d said, “before something else happens.” And like that, I’d headed in, miles before I’d planned to stop. What else was going to happen? The fin had been a dolphin. Flipper. Not Jaws. What else was going to happen? I kicked at some beached kelp but my only answer was slimy toes. I climbed back up to the park.
Sometime later, a wicked swell pounding the cove and spraying the tops of the west-facing cliffs. My toes squishing through damp grass. Wondering where my flip flops went. No sign of her. How long had I been there?
The chalk grey sky bleeding ink black toward rain. Night. Night and rain and no sign of her. I fed quarters into the pay as you go binoculars and scanned the breaking waves. Whitecaps even half a mile out, where my leg stopped working. Where I saw the fin. Felt the brush against my leg. The tug on my foot. Where I jellyfished.
Panning and scanning, time ticking away in my ears as the irises ratcheted closed and I spotted her.
Up the face. Down into the trough.
Lake swimming in a late winter swell. Surrounded by whitecaps and black…fins. Shapes like disembodied teeth circling and crossing. Irises shut. Ticking stopped. More coins into the slot. Eyes open. Pan and scan. Before something else happens.
What else could happen? What else could possibly happen?
A flash as mirrored goggles turned shoreward into an unnoticed patch of sunshine.
A smile and a wave as the fins circled and crossed.
A breath and under. Fins across the open water.
The ticking stops. The irises shut. Out of change, out of time.
Squinting into the grey horizon, only black shapes sliding across the water.
“Better head in,” she’d said, “before something else happens.”