I never realized the blood would be green. That was the first thought flashing in my head as the spear punctured his flesh. The moment everything went to hell. The moment I’ll never forget.
Our first mistake was telling Rob’s dad that we were experienced divers. Mike and I were no strangers to swimming or snorkeling, so we didn’t think there was much of a learning curve. Diving lessons were expensive though, and required weeks of training that didn’t fit our schedule. The end of college crept closer. Rob’s offer wouldn’t come again. This was our moment to make some memories.
So Mike and I drove down to Jacksonville on a Friday afternoon with the weather forecast for Saturday looking favorable. While Rob’s dad grilled steaks and sipped on warm bourbon, Mike, Rob, and I gathered in the garage for a hurried scuba tutorial. I didn’t hear or see everything, but Mike seemed to grasp Rob’s instructions, so I followed suit with nods and an occasional “hell yea.”
After steaks, the three of us ventured out to Jacksonville’s finest strip club. Rob’s dad didn’t know where we were going and probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. He divorced Rob’s mom years ago and now kept only to his porch, secure with his bourbon. The club was titled The Gold Club, but every color of the rainbow flashed and gyrated across the stage. I sipped on a beer, trying to avoid getting too drunk. I didn’t know much about diving, but I did know it wasn’t good to be hung-over or have alcohol-thinned blood. Rob killed that thought by bringing over a round of Patron shots. I surrendered to his judgment. I only trusted Rob when it came to diving; it had always been his thing.
Until that night I had never received a private lap dance. Being a broke college kid, I was typically the guy making five dollars last my entire stay—a dollar each for the five best looking girls in the joint. Needless to say, I never received much attention at strip clubs. But this night the private dance was financed by Rob—and all for me. I assumed I knew why, though I tried not to let it show. I should probably disclose that a month ago Rob slept with my girlfriend of two years, Sarah, while we were going through a rough patch. Rob and I were never real direct friends, just hung out when Mike was around. The only reason I was on this trip was because of Mike. It’s my understanding Rob thought I suspected some random guy from Louisiana to be Sarah’s other man. Mike didn’t know the details either. I liked to keep it that way for the time. One reason: Rob was a full-grown country boy, similar to Ronnie Van Zandt, without the long hair and muttonchops; I, on the other hand, had a stature more akin to Townes Van Zandt, without the heroin. That wasn’t the only reason though. I told myself I was waiting for the perfect time to confront him. I hadn’t seen Rob in months until this trip. But damn I also wanted to dive. So, I took his lap dance offer and put it in the back of my mind; it was time for new adventures.
The dancer, Ariel, took my hand and gently walked us into one of the dark rooms. The tight, blonde gymnast spun around my lap. I gazed at the glitter and admired her breasts falling out below my chin. The urge to motor boat was strong.
“What are you in town for, sweetie?”
I took a sip of beer to regain the ability to speak.
“Diving a wreck out in the Atlantic tomorrow.”
As soon as the words left my mouth I felt like a Navy frogman in town on a special ops mission, carelessly revealing the details to the naïve dame with the sweet smelling perfume. I assumed she was impressed and in awe at the wonders I would encounter the next day. That was until she went into excruciating detail about her first diving experience at age fifteen with her father and sister in Key West. I heard the whole travel log and received several pointers, even diving tips that Rob failed to mention. She became the teacher. Thankfully, and sadly, this was how I learned about the bends. Ariel informed me of the safety stops needed to let the nitrogen in your blood adjust to the pressure changes. Seemed like essential knowledge that one venturing to dive should know, and for this, I was grateful. Notwithstanding, I had long since deflated, in my ego and in my pants. Whatever training, if any, strippers undergo should inform them not to reveal the details of their wholesome family vacations while naked and ass-clapping. Something about it disrupts the fantasy, morphing lust into awkward positions. That was my first, and last, private lap dance.
* * *
The next morning we were on the boat by seven. I didn’t feel great, but not as hung-over as I feared. The cool morning air helped to relieve the shakes.
“Look behind you!” Mike yelled in my ear, disrupting my meditation.
Two large manatees blew breaths up from the glass-like water. You could hear their misty exhale break the morning stillness. They floated like relaxing overweight tourists, staying clear of the hustling world around them.
“Think we’ll see any while diving?” he turned to Rob.
“They won’t be where we’re going.”
I watched the sea cows grow smaller as Rob’s dad accelerated the Boston Whaler, taking us through the pass and into the grand Atlantic. It was grand to me anyway. Growing up as a land-locked Smoky Mountain boy, the Atlantic was that fabled abyss separating the old world from the new. From all outward appearances on that calm morning it seemed no different than a large lake back in Tennessee, but the electricity and history of it all still rattled my dehydrated bones. I wanted to explore every inch of it, but also feared the mere thought of it. I was obsessed with something I just knew would kill me. And I loved it.
A clear sky set up the back drop for a striking sunrise. Gulls called and hovered in our wake hoping for some easy breakfast. The boat dropped off a swell, slapping the water and causing the sea to spray my face. I had been baptized. Ready to enter a new world. Mike and I were fulfilling a dream and no lies or technicalities could stop us. I wiped my face and we toasted our coffee cups as if they were champagne flutes. Rob rolled his eyes at us, then jumped to his dad’s instruction to secure a loose rope at the bow.
* * *
“Put on your mask!” Rob shouted, throwing one over his eyes.
We spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins breaching the surface in unison. Rob’s dad slowed us down as if this was scheduled.
The three of us jumped in the ocean, suspended above unknown depths. I readjusted my mask and tried to peer below. Before noticing any dolphins, I watched jellyfish envelope my body, each one stinging my legs as if they had been waiting for me to move. They appeared as pink floating trash bags, each one indifferent to my presence. I tried to push them off but they only became more entangled.
“I’m surrounded!” I cried above the surface, choking on saltwater as my mask fell off again.
But Rob and Mike were under catching the show I was missing. Rob’s dad might’ve heard me, but I was too embarrassed and in a state to look back at the boat. I resituated and swam to the left, determined not to fail right out of the gate. That’s when I saw what I’ll probably never see again: two dolphins suspended in the water column, facing one another as if dancing, locked together just above their tails. I knew they were mating without ever having seen such a thing from a dolphin or ever having thought about how such a marine mammal reproduces. I no longer felt the jellyfish—or anything. I floated in the column with the dolphins, and they didn’t care. For a moment we were all suspended together in another time.
The male finished quickly just as we were all out of breath. Then, as if to boast and high-five his friends, he shot upwards, breaching the water five feet in the air, and performed a perfect somersault. He knew we were there and gladly shared his elation. I never felt closer to another species in my life. That was until Rob spoke up.
“Get you some, big boy!” he yelled, flinging off his mask.
My euphoric feeling dissipated. I’ll admit it wasn’t anything he said; just that it was Rob who said it. If it had been Mike, I probably would’ve laughed. But Rob felt like an intruder into that moment. Like some sleaze-bag frat boy ruining the sanctity of the natural act. One that’ll hit on your girl as you leave the room to take a shit. Though, what really hurt, what really made me stop, was that he did belong. He was willing to follow his animal instincts and sully the accepted customs of friendship and moral codes. He was living in the natural world. I was the one who didn’t belong, languishing in defeat and passive aggressive fantasies. The mere act of him speaking reminded me that he was still there and I shouldn’t be.
The jellyfish stings shot to the forefront of my nerves.
It took us about thirty minutes to reach the first dive spot. Below us sat a broken up barge as Mike and Rob’s dad prepared their gear. I was as glad that the time had come as I was not to be first. Rob watched as Mike fumbled his way through the equipment. I watched Rob’s dad, taking mental notes so as not to tip off the captain when my turn came to ready the gear.
As the two dropped backwards off the sides, silence entered the rocking boat. After the dolphin mating experience, all the drama from the recent month was on my mind that shouldn’t have been; everything I had planned to suppress until at least this dive trip was over. But now I wanted to hold Rob up against the railing and confront him. Not that he was the sole perpetrator and that Sarah was blameless—we had already had our confrontation. She said I bored her and lacked passion. I said she was a shallow hypocrite. Both of which we’ll regret someday I’m sure. But this with Rob was different. This was a yearning for revenge. I wanted to scream his defilements to the Atlantic as if to rally unseen forces to my aid—and to see whose side they’d choose. I hadn’t been able to move on. I couldn’t think about other girls. I needed to make this right. For my own sanity. But I did nothing of the sort. We shared a cigarette. Rob talked about last night’s strippers. Then he revealed that he once dated my private dancer, Ariel, in high school.
“Her!” I laughed out smoke. “She needs to quit her night job. You know she told me all about her damn family diving trip from years ago.”
“Really?” he smiled, as if remembering an old joke. “I was the one who taught her how to dive. Back when her name was Melissa; before she changed it to a Disney character.”
I suddenly felt queasy, realizing another layer as to why he offered her up for my private dance—he was trying to pay me back in some covert way simply to satisfy his own conscience, or worse, simply toying with me by releasing such a tease that he probably didn’t even have to pay. Right then I was about to hold the cigarette butt up to his eye and curse him for all his sins, and lie to him that I banged the hell out of Ariel—or Melissa—in the back room last night, and that she raved about it being the best she’d ever had. I wanted him to hurt. But within that same moment Mike’s breath released into the air.
“Flounder!” he yelled, as usual, with a wide grin across his face. “A whole ringer full!”
* * *
We rode another three miles on our way to the next dive spot. I turned and looked out at the dark blue waves making their way to the same shore we had just left. I started thinking about everything they hid and held. Rob helped his dad read the GPS, while Mike sat on the starboard side, smiling into the wind, ignorant of the drama stretched around him. I envied his bliss. Mike always yelled too loud and always pushed the limit. But damn he was loyal.
Rob’s dad asked if we were ready as he throttled down the boat.
“More than ever,” I replied, while clapping my hands to release the nerves.
Mike covertly helped me as I tried to recall the correct sequence to donning my gear. Somehow Rob’s dad still thought we were experienced, licensed divers.
“Remember to breathe,” Mike said, just before I fell backwards into a different world.
I laughed in my mind as he said it, but then quickly realized the act of breathing underwater does not come naturally to a land mammal. Choppy, frantic breathes came out at first, unlike my snorkeling days. The equipment was new; the air tasted strange. Mike’s last words reverberated in my mind like a head trip—remember to breathe,
I almost panicked, but then developed a steady pattern. As the oxygen flowed, the nerves relaxed and my wits returned. I started kicking forward through the blue-green water and found Rob waiting near the anchor line. He gave me the hand signal to follow as we released the air from our vests and sank.
I became an astronaut approaching an unknown and possibly hostile world; breathing and watching. The murkiness of the water column gave way as we lowered above a sunken cargo ship. With the improved visibility my nerves relaxed. I watched my bubbles ascend to the surface, marking my trail. All I could hear was my breathing. Spadefish, red snapper, and a few amberjack swarmed all around us as if holding a conference in which we were cautiously welcome. They fluttered and dove like birds, striking the sand and rising up into the column in a single jolt. I couldn’t stop from smiling; my teeth had to grip the regulator tightly to keep it from falling out.
Rob spotted a loggerhead sea turtle gliding near our flank and immediately handed me the spear gun while grabbing the back of her shell. Initially I assumed he had lost his mind, but remembered this was his expertise. We were in his element. The turtle’s shell held barnacles older than both of us. As Rob rode the ancient reptile like a boogie board across the wreck, I could see the fear and struggle in the turtle’s eyes and the careless enjoyment in his. Her fins stroked the water in vain.
I couldn’t watch any longer. I left them, sinking down, observing the tiny worlds within worlds as I peered in closer to the structure of the sunken ship. Clear shrimp and minnows scurried among the coral, creating entire cities that were indifferent to my observing eyes. As I listened to the mantra of my steady breaths, all I could think was that while I was wasting away in the warm classrooms of college, worrying about petty shit or girls, these minute creatures were out here, miles from shore and nearly eighty feet below the surface, abiding within the domains created atop this wreckage. And this represented just a speck of a sample on the edge of the abyss. I wanted to immerse myself further but didn’t know how. I wanted to change everything I had been doing up to that point. Then I saw Rob fake humping the old loggerhead and laughing out bubbles. I rolled my eyes and sank to the sandy bottom, placing the ship between us. But it wasn’t enough.
That’s when I saw the goliath—a Goliath Grouper I am told—barely hidden under the bow of the old ship; her lips, the size of a child’s forearms, rhythmically taking in the salt water to breathe. She was hideous, but beautiful, hovering just above the sandy bottom. Her skin appeared dark brown and camouflaged against the surface of the sunken ship. My heart pounded against my wetsuit. She had to be over 100 pounds. The moment was too rare to pass up. With my hands shaking, I carefully pulled back the gun’s band and readied the spear as if I knew what the hell I was doing. I kicked my fins slowly, not wanting to come in too close or sudden. Then the Goliath stirred the sand.
I shot the spear into the watery haze.
That’s when I saw the green blood.
That’s when I heard the effervescent scream protruding from Rob as his regulator flew from his mouth. The spear cut clean through the meat of his wetsuit and thigh. Green clouds of blood billowed from the wound. I had never realized that at that depth without the light of the sun the colors would change in such a way. Because of this, my mind almost didn’t register the scene. Everything seemed foreign or fake. I approached him nervously. Rob flashed a look of anger and confusion, mixed with a fearful plea that placed his destiny in my hands. The hands that created the storm now had to provide the shelter.
I hesitated at first, still confused by what was before me. Then I handed Rob my second regulator so that he would remember to breathe properly. He followed my direction like a scared child on a turbulent plane. Then I saw the new arrivals that began circling on account of the flowing blood. Like a demonic halo above us swam a school of barracudas with the light of a now foreign sun in the middle, beckoning us upward like the divine grace of heaven itself. I wanted to scream. But only bubbles came out. Instead I looked into Rob’s eyes. This time the anger had dissolved, it was only fear that showed and mercy he requested. That’s when something primal in me overrode the controls of my soft, modern specimen and grabbed Rob by the shoulders and began hauling him to the surface. Dark green clouds blanketed our legs and fins.
While shooting upward, I thankfully remembered Ariel’s tip about the bends. Nothing in me wanted to stop, but I didn’t want to take any chances. As we paused for our safety stop, I thanked the heavens for Ariel’s emasculating story and dive tips, and then noticed we had entered the ring of barracudas. The razor sharp fish zipped like silver arrows in my peripheral. With each flash I prayed it wasn’t a strike to flesh. Then I remembered the spear gun and began jabbing the beasts off with the barrel. I hit three soundly in the gills. They began to fear me; I could feel it. But the commotion also fueled more frenzy. One of the fish struck the muzzle, scraping off the edges with his fang-like teeth. I looked at Rob to ensure he was still conscious. His eyes remained still.
I didn’t think of much while suspended in that ring of hell. No philosophical ponderings or epiphanies. Something primal drove my actions. I was like every other ill-fated creature, merely trying to survive another second within that violent mass of salt water. The green clouds made it hard to see, but I kept striking at every flash of silver that passed my view.
When we surfaced, the boat was absent from our horizon; only the Atlantic in all its vastness. The view crushed my vain human heart with an overwhelming loneliness, briefly leaving me afloat in the immense indifference of the earth’s moat. I felt better down below on the wreck. Rob started to breathe rapidly as if in shock. Then I heard Mike yelling behind us. His loud ass never sounded so good.
* * *
I counted the cracks in the wall while he slept deep within the effects of pain medication. I counted to avoid my own thoughts. Mike and Rob’s dad meandered about the hospital or stood outside smoking. I sat alone in a chair below the cracks, next to Rob.
“I’m sorry,” he finally spoke, without moving, as if someone had just powered him on.
I stammered, taken aback at his consciousness and the choice of first words. “For what?”
“I think you know.”
“I know you’re on a shit ton of pain pills.”
“If it makes you feel any better, you can screw my first love, Melissa—or I should say Ariel—for 500 bucks and a Big Mac,” he slurred with a sad humor in his voice. “That’s apparently her job now.”
I stood up from my slouch and looked into his drugged eyes.
“I didn’t want to shoot you, Rob. I swear I didn’t mean to,” I said, lying through half of the statement.
“I know. You’re better than that.”
“Well, don’t give me too much credit. I’m really not.”
“I know you’re good people. I do. That’s why I hate that—”
“This boy needs to get some rest,” the doctor ordered while splitting the curtains.
They both stared at me as I stood immobile for a moment. Part of me wished the doctor had never interrupted, but most of me didn’t care anymore. I grabbed my phone from the table.
“Thanks for saving me,” Rob said.
I nodded and left him for the last time.
* * *
Mike and I drove around downtown Jacksonville for hours, knowing we didn’t want to go back and sit at Rob’s house. We kept all the windows down, barely speaking, until we came to a long red light.
“How about we go to The Gold Club? It’ll take your mind off things,” Mike offered, tapping impatiently on the steering wheel. “Rob told me to tell you Melissa was working tonight and to have at it. Do you know who—”
“Damn, I guess he was serious after all.”
“Who’s this Melissa?” Mike asked, turning down the radio.
“Nobody. It’s an old story.”
He looked at me as if he had it all figured out, but wasn’t sure. “Well, whatever, where do you want to go?”
As we sat motionless I looked at the reflection of our vehicle in the mirrored blue glass of an adjacent bank building. I couldn’t help but think of the Atlantic and every struggle it held. I wanted to cry and laugh at the balanced absurdity of it all.
“I can’t just idle forever.”
I took a deep breath and turned to Mike, “Let’s just go to a regular bar. I want to find some girls of our own.”
He looked up as if to weigh our options, then gave me a wink, “Glad to have you back, Captain.”
Mike accelerated through the green light as I watched our reflection move forward along the glass.
Samuel Wilkes is a writer, attorney, and bedroom musician living in Fairhope, Alabama. He has a love-hate relationship with Alabama, but consistently draws inspiration from her. His short fiction has been published in WhiskeyPaper,Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak, On the Premises, Deep South Magazine, Fiction on the Web, Steel Toe Review, Page & Spine, and several others. One of his short stories was nominated for the 2014 Pushcart Prize.