by D. Thomas Minton
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Daniel can’t remember the name of the woman he left sleeping in his apartment. He calls her The Artist, another in the endless progression of women since Susan, all of them nameless — The Artist, The Doctor, The Blonde, The Receptionist.
He rolls down the window and cool, dry air streams in, burning off his sweat. With a shaky hand he eats the sandwich he bought at the Kwik Stop just off I-5. It fills his belly like ballast. The hum of tires on pavement soothes him. Desert blacktop is always glassy smooth like it was poured yesterday.
The empty road stretches to the sky, bruised purple fading to coral as dawn approaches. His grandfather used to tell him that the desert got hot every day because the rocks caught fire at dawn.
Yet another of his stories.
The tires crunch gravel as Daniel pulls off the road and rolls to a stop. The engine sputters and drowns.
His fingers ache from gripping the steering wheel. For several minutes he listens to the silence, afraid it will end, clawed apart by the scratch of fingernails. A roar fills his ears as he slumps against the steering wheel and begins to sob, muttering over and over, “It should have been me.”
Session 11 August 16
[Klosen] Tell me about your older brother.
[P6798] Tom’s obsessed with sunken ships. Has been ever since Grandma drowned when I was nine.
[P6798] He spends hours searching libraries, newspapers, the Internet for information on ship sinkings. He’s even set up a network of other disaster . . . enthusiasts around the world. They share their latest finds or, if they’re really lucky, news of a ship that just went down, complete with gory details and analysis. I don’t understand it, but Tom gets a gleam in his eye when he talks about shipwrecks.
[P6798] Four years ago, he quit his job as a systems analyst. He claimed he could then focus on his book about maritime disasters. I guess it’s a matter of who you talk to if he really quit his job or was let go. It wasn’t unusual to find him home in the middle of the day. I dropped by one afternoon and found him sound asleep on the couch, buried beneath a pile of print outs and magazines. On the wall above him were pictures of the Titanic, The Empress of Ireland, Lusitania, Curacao.
[Klosen] Go on.
[P6798] It was like he was entombed in the wreckage of one of them.
[Klosen] What did you do?
[P6798] I put the article on the top of the stack and left. It disturbed me a little, but that’s Tom. If his obsession were to suddenly vanish, it would be like him losing his nose, or an eye, or his heart.
[P6798] When we were little, Tom would often come rushing into the kitchen at six in the morning waving a printout or a piece of notebook paper with scribbles on it. He’d have that gleam in his eye, the one most kids reserved for Christmas or their birthdays. Some mornings that gleam would be bright and the edges of his mouth would be turned up more than usual. Then I knew I was in for a disaster story with a body count over a thousand. “Did you know that the Toya Moru sank on September 26, 1954?” he’d say. “Eleven hundred and seventy-two died in the Tsugaru Strait.”
[P6798] Most of those ships sank in places I’d never heard of. Sometimes Tom would know where they were, but usually he’d shrug, admit he wasn’t sure, and then take a guess, usually the North Atlantic, because that’s where most of the action seemed to happen. I used to think it had something to do with all of those icebergs, but I know better now.
Daniel leaves his car on the side of the road and heads into the desert on foot. His plan: to walk away from the rising sun, the road, the past.
The sun peeks over the mountains behind him. Its heat begins to burn the night chill away, but not fast enough.
Coming over the ship’s railing, Daniel grips a slender arm. His fingers ache. Numb. Cold from the water.
A light on a pole swings overhead. Shadows rock as the ship rolls on the swell. The arm is sleeved in a slick jacket whose color is gone in the blackness. A strange face is etched with determination, beautiful yet strange.
Daniel weeps. “It should have been me.”
He remembers Mazatlan, being adrift in a sea of industrial disinfectant and the muffled voices reserved for the sick and dying. Not even the thermal blankets could pry the cold from his bones. He didn’t have the dreams then, they came later. The sleep he found in Mazatlan was utter, complete, like the dead must experience.
He wishes for that again.
Like a castaway, Daniel crawls the shore of lucidity. Voices. English words, but he cannot understand them. Vaguely he recalls hearing English. Other times, other places, when the nurses adjust his morphine. Different . . . different . . . yet . . .
Water tugs at his ankles, threatening to pull him back into the ocean.
He recognizes these voices.
He struggles up the loose sand. He won’t be pulled back into the murky sea this time.
“I heard the latest casualty count this morning.” Tom, a hushed whisper not meant for Daniel’s ears.
He tries to call to Tom, but he has no voice.
“You get a sick pleasure out of that, don’t you?”
Susan? Daniel tries to find her, but the beach on which he crawls is the same bone-white color as the sky overhead. She must be over the dune. He pulls at the sand, but every time he does, he slides back toward the water.
“This is no place to discuss this,” his mother says sharply.
Black water grabs his legs. He claws at the sand.
“I just thought you’d want to know. He’s only one of a hundred and fifty-nine.”
“He’s lucky to still be with us, thank the Lord.”
“He really cheated death,” Susan says.
“Cheated death?” Tom’s voice rises. His mother hushes him – or maybe it’s Susan. Tom continues, his voice quieter. “He didn’t cheat death. He stared it right in the face and kicked its sorry ass off the boat.”
Unable to fight it anymore, Daniel slides back into the sea and beneath the surface of consciousness into dream.
Mazatlan (Reuters) – Hundreds of people were feared drowned early today when a Mexican ferry with 1,128 people aboard sank in the Sea of Cortez. “The number of victims will be many hundreds, I fear,” Capt. Alejandro Martinez at the Mazatlan Sea Rescue Center told Reuters news service by telephone.
The Senora Sunrise had sent a distress signal that it was listing seriously around 2 am. The cause of the accident was unknown. Martinez speculated that the ship’s heavy cargo, including cars and other vehicles, might have shifted in rough seas, causing it to capsize.
Martinez said about 150 people had been rescued from where the 23,566 ton passenger ferry sank while on its way from La Paz to Mazatlan, Mexico. One survivor had told him that the Senora Sunrise sank quickly. “It all happened in about ten minutes. The ship listed over, then sank.”
Session 7 August 2
[Klosen] Your father is Jack Kelsen?
[P6798] So I’ve been told. I never knew my dad, except through the occasional birthday or Christmas present that always seemed to be a model boat. I remember seeing him only three times by the time I was ten, and each time was on television as his racing yacht claimed some big trophy. He’s won many of the prestigious regattas – Hobart, Whitbread. Not the America’s Cup, but who knows.
[P6798] He used to send me patches from some of the ports he visited. My mom would sew them on my baseball caps or my Cub Scout uniform. When I was seven the patches stopped coming. My mom used to tell me that he was busy and probably would mail them when he got a chance. They never came.
[P6798] When I was ten, Tom told me he had run off and married one of his grinders. Tom pointed her out on television once, but I couldn’t tell what she looked like. She had on a slicker and her head was bent over the grinding wheels. We had videotaped the clip, and I spent hours trying to pause it at the exact frame so I could see her face, but I never saw anything.
[Klosen] Did you ever ask your mother why he left?
[P6798] Once. She said that he loved the sea more than anything.
[Klosen] Go on.
[P6798] She had that look on her face, like a jilted girlfriend. I wonder now which of her loves turned its back on her. I haven’t thought about that day in . . . since it happened. I don’t know why I remember this, but she said to me, “The sea will be no one’s mistress.” Those were her exact words.
[P6798] When I was fifteen, I found a scrapbook under a stack of old photos in a cabinet in our family room. I’d never seen it before, but I could tell it was old. It was full of black and white pictures of a young woman on a sailing boat. I paged through the book and slowly began to recognize my mother. In several of the pictures she held small sailing trophies. I found it odd because she never talked about sailing. Not then, not now. The last picture in the book was her holding a baby on the deck of a racing yacht with my father behind her. She was looking at the baby. He stared off at the water.
Daniel’s car is lost beyond a ridge of ragged red stone. The sky overhead is deep azure, almost the color of a tropical sea, but not quite aquamarine enough. Wisps of clouds, like sea foam, float overhead like the sun’s wake. Bleached light shimmers through them, heat-wrinkling the desert.
At Susan’s insistence, he had seen Dr. Tobias Klosen at least two dozen times in the weeks following Mazatlan. He thought he was fine and didn’t need anyone digging around inside his head. Tom had agreed.
Daniel comes to a pile of bones nestled in the desert dust. A drop of sweat splatters the bleached skull. The circle of moisture shrinks, lightens, evaporates before his eyes.
He wishes he had taken the visits seriously. If he had, he might not have an apartment full of regrets scattered among the detritus of the discarded women since her. He might not be in the desert now.
Susan had been patient with him. At night, when he’d awaken screaming, she would wrap her whole body around him like a lifejacket and hold him until he grew quiet. She had cared for him in those months after Mazatlan, when he had been unable to work. She had a way of taking the horror away with a squeeze of a hand. Patient, always patient, and what had he done for her?
Susan peeks around the corner of the hall.
Immediately Daniel knows something is different. She has that little knot between her eyebrows – the one she gets when she struggles with a problem that has no solution. Daniel knows he is that problem.
She steps out of the hall and crosses to the apartment door. Rolling obediently behind her is a suitcase.
Daniel says nothing. Not because he shouldn’t say anything, but because he realizes he cannot. Over the past weeks, since he stopped seeing Dr. Klosen, he has withdrawn. He has drifted away from her, and no matter how hard he swims, the currents of life take her closer to the horizon. Now, sitting on the couch in the small living room, the walls of which seem to close in on him tighter every day, he is not surprised to see her, bag in tow, heading toward the only way out.
She pauses, her back to him.
Her long hair is braided into a single thick rope and pulled over her shoulder. He admires the slender line of her neck as it drops into the red collar of her blouse. He can almost feel the warmth radiating off her skin and realizes how much colder the apartment will be without her.
“You’re not going to say anything?”
Daniel blinks slowly. If he thought it would actually help, he would try, but he is resigned. He is tired of fighting. If only he had not fought so hard back in Mazatlan, everything would be easier now for Susan. She would be six months closer to a normal life.
She sniffles loudly. “Get help, Daniel.”
He wants to cry, but he hasn’t cried for himself since Mazatlan.
When he looks up, the apartment door is open. The foyer is empty.
Unlike the tide, she has never returned.
Session 12 August 20
[P6798] I don’t think Grandma liked children.
[Klosen] Why do you say that?
[P6798] She would smack my hand whenever I would touch any of the little knickknacks she had on her antique shelves and tables. Once, I chipped a little ceramic figure of a child playing with a toy boat. She lifted me by my arm and swung me into the corner, told me to stay there until I left.
[P6798] After a long, loud argument with my mom, we spent the night in a hotel. I cried until I finally fell asleep in my mom’s lap. I was five. I don’t know why I remember that day so clearly. Maybe because I can sometimes still feel a pain in my arm.
[Klosen] You said last time that you thought your grandmother’s death wasn’t an accident. Why?
[P6798] My grandmother’s name was Lucy. It wasn’t until much later that I learned Lucy was short for Lusitania. When I asked my mom about it, she told me that Grandma was named after the ship because my great-grandfather died on it. I found this unlikely, so I once dug up the ship’s manifest and searched for his name. It was there, wedged between Albert Wyldman and Alexander Van Dyke, neither of whom survived either. I’ve wondered what it must be like to be a walking memorial to all those dead people. Did my great-grandmother look at her everyday as some reminder of her dead husband?
[Klosen] That doesn’t mean she killed herself.
[P6798] No, it doesn’t, but . . . sometimes I think I’m the only one who has noticed, but I’m sure that Tom has, too. On March 7, 1985, exactly seventy years after the Lusitania sank, my grandmother drowned off Martha’s Vineyard. I hope she’s found peace.
Daniel’s skin glows pink. He drapes his coat over his head to protect it from the merciless hammer of the noontime sun. His stomach grumbles, but he ignores it as he climbs a gentle slope onto a low rise topped with thorny scrub. He is lost in thoughts of cool air and water.
In the moonlight, Susan’s naked body shines like milk as she gently rocks atop him.
His muscles slowly coil. His fingers claw the edge of the blanket, the sand beneath. He wants their first time to last an eternity. On the edge of his perception, waves break softly and run up the beach, sounding like silk sliding across skin.
Her breathing deepens. She closes her eyes, lost in the movement of their bodies.
She tightens around him.
Daniel gasps as his muscles contract, then release. The cool wind blowing off the ocean goose-pimples his skin, but he is warm with pleasure and regret. The tide caresses the soles of his feet as Susan collapses on top of him, murmuring wordlessly.
Daniel’s eyes click back into focus, and he stumbles away from the edge of the cliff. The land drops steeply onto a jumble of broken rock. A salt basin, spider-webbed like a cracked windshield, stretches to the horizon. Daniel drops to his knees.
A sweat drop tumbles from his nose and is sucked up by the dry soil. For the first time since Mazatlan, he feels clarity.
Susan’s sea-green eyes glitter in the dawn light. She always liked dawn better than sunset. “It promises a new day, a new life,” she had told him on their first date two years ago to the day.
The boardwalk overlooks the Pacific Ocean, unusually calm for the month. Susan snuggles her face into Daniel’s shoulder for warmth.
He touches the ring in his pocket. It’s warm and slides easily over the tip of his index finger. He has been trying the entire weekend to ask her, but when the moment arrived, it wasn’t right. But now . . .
He tries to say the words he spent days crafting in his head, but they feel wrong. Instead, he hears himself speak, and is embarrassed at how stupid he sounds. “Susan, will you spend the rest of your life with me?” The ring glows warmly in the coral light.
She does not look surprised by his question. She answers by kissing him deeply.
Daniel rolls onto his back and lays his coat over his face like a shroud. The air within quickly becomes fetid, reeking of fear and sweat. He labors to draw the thick air into his burning lungs.
As he has done many times since Mazatlan, he wonders what it’s like to drown. Would it hurt as the sea filled his lungs and plunged him into darkness?
Chilled at the thought, Daniel sits up. The sunlight burns spots on his eyes, like the searchlights on the water. Gradually, his vision clears.
The surface of the desert gleams white with salt.
Session 5 July 26
[P6798] My grandfather is a liar. I don’t hate him for it. I lie about it too.
[Klosen] Why do you lie about what happened?
[P6798] Because they can never understand.
[Klosen] Can you help me understand?
[Klosen] Then tell me how your grandfather lied to you?
[P6798] In the Second World War, he worked as a radio man on a cruiser called the Juneau. It sank during the Battle of Guadalcanal. He survived, obviously. When I was little, I used to sit on his lap and he’d tell me about the days he spent in the water with his buddies, how they clung together like a human raft and chased away sharks. It took eight days for a frigate to find him. He talked about exposure, about being hungry and singing songs. He never once talked about being scared, because he wasn’t, he said. I know now that he was telling me stories, because songs and comrades can’t keep that fear away.
[Klosen] How do you know? The bonds formed in the military can be very powerful. You didn’t have that.
[P6798] When I was younger, Tom and I used to race toy boats in one of those kiddy pools my grandpa would set up in his backyard. He’d race boats with us until Tom and I decided it was time to sink them. Then he’d sit with my mom on the back porch. One time, Tom and I started drowning our toy men and making them scream like they were getting attacked by sharks. Grandpa went inside, and Mom made us get out of the pool.
[P6798] He came to see me the week I got home from Mazatlan. I didn’t open the door even though he pleaded for me to let him in. I didn’t want to see him because he had lied to me. I saw him again last week. He asked me how I was doing, like the whole thing had never happened. When I touched his arm he flinched, like what happened to me would infect him. After I touched him, he made a lame excuse and left. He knows what happened out there, and it scares the hell out of him.
A breeze blows across Daniel’s body, but it is searing hot and brings no relief. His throat is parched, and his shirt no longer clings to his chest. Out of the corner of his eye he sees the edge of the c1iff, but he’s too weak to crawl toward it. He rolls over and empties his stomach. His vomit sizzles on the sun-heated stone.
Susan’s voice swims through his head. Her face drifts across his vision, disappearing and reappearing against the turquoise sky. Her nose is subtly wrong, the lips a little too full, the eyes not the right shade of sea-green. Daniel tries to will the image back to reality, but it refuses to change, so he screams obscenities at it. It melts away into a dark ocean as the sky falls away, like a tattered cloth shredded by nails.
Daniel’s fingers clutch the edge of a bench as he lays in the bottom of the pitching boat. He tastes the tang of salt in the air, hears the sound of water beating against the fiberglass hull just inches from his ears.
A hand, cold and wet with barely any strength left in the grip, grabs his leg. Only a hand, because the arm extends over the side of the lifeboat, into the black, wind-tossed sea. The boat begins to list, frantic voices fill his ears.
Daniel tries to scream, but the sound curdles in his throat and drowns.
He sees the face of the ocean over the edge of the gunwale as the boat tips, an angry beast in the cloud-shrouded moonlight. Then he sees a line of human faces and hands, all trying to scramble out of that hungry maw. Water, icy, murky and black as ink swirls in and around his body, boring into his bones like shipworms.
He tries to push his weight against the opposite gunwale and right the boat before it capsizes, but a jumble of bodies pins him down, crushes his fingers, opens a cut over his left eye.
The hand tightens on his leg. He stares down into the wide eyes of a woman, her mouth contorted into an oval of fear. She claws at his pants, trying to gain purchase to pull herself into the boat. Fighting erupts at the stern. Splashes. Wailing, like judgment has come to damn those not chosen.
Daniel begins to slide toward the water as the woman’s waterlogged weight pulls him down.
With a sobbing cry he kicks at the gripping hand. The woman screams as he kicks her from his pant leg. The boat swings back the other way, and he knocks his head on the bottom. He lays stunned in the seawater puddled in the bottom, his ear against the hull, saltwater lapping against his cheek, his head filled with the sound of fingernails as the ocean sucks its victims to the bottom.
8.0. Conclusions of the Investigation
On the basis of the findings, the International Maritime Safety Commission concludes that the sinking of the Senora Sunrise was unavoidable and without negligence on the part of the vessel Master, crew, or Mazatlan Shipping, Inc. Based on limited physical evidence and interviews with surviving crew (11) and passengers (148), the Investigating Officer concludes that the Senora Sunrise took on water rapidly in rough seas for unknown reasons and capsized, providing no opportunity to successfully evacuate all passengers. Furthermore, the Commission concludes that the Master and crew conducted themselves in a manner consistent with established maritime protocols and that their actions resulted in the saving of lives, often at the cost of their own.
Daniel’s body shakes. His foot hurts from where he must have kicked a rock.
Tom looks up from a fax with the latest figures for the ferry Estonia that had just gone down off the coast of Finland, claiming 1,049 lives in the murky and cold Baltic Sea. Spread out around them is a copy of his manuscript, four years in the writing but still not finished. “We are the ocean,” Tom says. “Our tears, our blood, our sweat. It all calls back to the brine.”
The tip of the sun sits atop the western mountains.
Overhead the sky darkens from turquoise to deep purple, like the color of the sea when it drinks the lives of those who love it.
Chilled, Daniel shivers, and it strikes him as odd to be cold in the desert.
“We must navigate the oceans of life, disasters lurking just out of sight. Like those who left Southampton in 1912, or New York on the Lusitania, we will either survive or we will end up cold and dead in the dark depths.”
The night closes around him like water, but Daniel is no longer afraid.
Off in the distance, perhaps in another room of Tom’s house overlooking the slate-grey Pacific, he hears Susan laughing as a vinyl record plays a happy song. At what she is laughing, he doesn’t know, but her laugh is warm and filling and chases the cold away.
“Some of us survive,” Tom says, his voice far away.
Susan’s laughter fades, leaving only the scratch-scratching of the needle as the record ends.
“Some of us don’t.”
BIO: D. Thomas Minton writes from the middle of the Pacific Ocean where he lives with his wife and daughter. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Lightspeed Magazine, and Daily Science Fiction. He scribbles idle ramblings at dthomasminton.com.