Episode #2: Sea Monster in San Francisco (Monsters Are Real)
I hate quality time. My little brother talks non-stop as if he’s selling art at an auction. The old man flits about smothering us with dad jokes and ‘pearls’ of wisdom. These ‘pearls’, mind you, are basically heaping spoonfuls of parental advice disguised as “real, personal stories.” But, he always avoids telling the good ones.
You know, the ones about him sneaking out and getting a beating or jumping into a fight he couldn’t win to protect a friend or how he and Mom met and...unmet. Instead, I’m suffocated with a bunch of dusty old lectures that start with “well, ya know” and “when I was your age.” You were never my age.
On the bright side, Pugsley, my brother’s cleverly named Pug, typically gets to tag along. His go-to move is to find a nice spot on the floor and plop down like a wet rag. I like Pugs; mainly because he’s quiet. He rarely barks or even lifts his chin if it doesn’t involve something he can shovel into his mouth. Or, unless one of us accidentally steps on his paw (because we sincerely forgot he was sleeping there).
Tonight, our patriarch’s grand idea is to take our rickety family boat, passed down through generations of Fensters, out into the San Francisco Bay so we can ‘gaze upon the stars and become one with nature.’
There’s one teency issue with this. All right, there’s several, but here is the biggest. I’ve been a little creeped out by water ever since my cousin tried to drown Lucy. It was over four years ago and is another story for another time, but the memory is still as crisp. Actually, no. I’ll tell you now.
Lucy was my 3rd-grade class’s pet gerbil. And, in that moment, I felt as if I had been struck by Medusa’s glare. My face twisted in a silent scream as Lucy kicked, splashed and squealed.
I’ll never forget the sound of her shrill squeaks. She’d escape my cousin’s grip long enough to paddle around the inner rim of the pale blue bucket before being recaptured and dunked under.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a Great Gerbil, they sort of looks like poofy, beige squirrels without tails. Even when healthy, they only live for a few years. Which makes it sadder that my cousin tried to cut Lucy’s life shorter.
When Lucy finally had enough she twitched and bit my cousin on her pointer finger. Something about seeing Lucy fight for her life snapped me out of my spectator’s trance and I kicked the bucket. Water spread into the grass and Lucy fled like she was running from an explosion in an action movie. My twisted cousin didn’t utter a peep about her now-bleeding finger. She just shook it silently as if she’d touched something hot. We watched Lucy fling herself into an emerald hedge and disappear forever.
I turned to my cousin and asked why she tried to pull a hit on the class pet I’d waited a lifetime to babysit. She said, and I quote, “I read somewhere that Great Gerbils can breathe underwater. I wanted to test it.”
...My cousin didn’t read.
Well, after that gem of a weekend, I had to explain to my class how I ‘lost’ Lucy. And, that a psychologically damaged Great Gerbil was running wild in the streets of Oakland. I was the most hated kid in my class for months.
So, I have my issues with water and we were supposed to leave during the daylight, in time to catch the sunset out in the water. But as usual, our plans are running behind schedule because my brother “had” to eat, do or finish something. This time, he was possessed with a need to find pieces of his pirate costume from two Halloweens ago. By the time we arrive at the pier, the sky looks like a black curtain. Dad eases our vomit-green Subaru to a stop in the vacant lot and kills the engine.
We hop out and trek through a brief patch of sand before reaching the dock. The number “37” is painted in curvy, white figures on the pale brown deck.
Two rows of tall light poles, stretching high into the sky, line the walkway and drop circles of yellow light onto the wood. Moths flutter furiously beneath the bulbs above, casting hectic shadows onto our path. As we press forward, the deck moans and creaks beneath the weight of our feet. Stretches of darkness exist between the light, sometimes lasting two or three full steps. Dad activates the flashlight on his phone and steadies the beam ahead of us.
The boat, our one treasured family heirloom, is docked at a location which looks like it was abandoned during a zombie apocalypse. Poorly lit. No other boats nearby. And, stationed along a decrepit deck, ready to collapse at any minute. I get the prickling feeling we are the only ones who ever visit this pier.
Our boat, an underwhelming vision of cream and strawberry-colored paint, older than the Magna Carta, peeks above the walking deck while swaying with the current like an old woman in a rocking chair awaiting casual conversation.
Quick Question: have you been to the beach at night? If you haven’t, it’s worse than any dark room, creaky closet, or spooky attic you can imagine. Here’s why. It moves. It breathes. The waves swooshing in and being dragged out sounds like heavy sighs and long gasps. Unlike the things kids ‘claim’ live in the tiny spaces of their home, things really do live in the water.
Things with teeth that bite. Tentacles that squeeze. Electricity that shocks. Claws that slice. Even things humans haven’t seen yet. Nat Geo said we know more about deep space than we do the deep waters of our planet. And I super-believe them. If we can’t trust nature documentaries, what can we trust?
As we arrive at our glorified tugboat, I gaze across the bay at the shadowy mountains. At night, this landscape becomes a silhouette of itself. Dark shapes outlined only by moonlight. My dad lowers himself into the boat first. As he makes contact, the vessel teeters with his weight.
“Come on in. It’s safe,” he says. He stretches his arms for my little brother who stops to scoop up Puglsey and holds the dog in front of him like Simba in the Lion King. Dad grabs Pugs, sets him down and before he turns back, my brother leaps from the dock. My dad pivots just in time to catch him. The boat responds to this trauma by bouncing like a floating bath toy.
“Hah,” my brother belts.
They are a perfect pair. Bootsy #1 & Bootsy #2. See, at seven, he can get away with that crap. At twelve, I’m way too old for the whole ‘leaping into daddy’s arms’ business. I climb down unassisted.
Once we’re in, my dad snaps his fingers rapidly like firecrackers. Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop-Pop. Something he does when he’s excited. He strolls toward the nose of the boat, before spinning on a heel to face us.
“Crrrrsshk! Please keep all arms and legs inside of the beautiful three-story yacht at all times. The Fenster Tour Group will not be responsible for children falling overboard, even if these children claim to know the captain. If you happen to find yourself chin-deep in H20, seek shelter in the lost city of Atlantis. And, tell my homie Poseidon Dougie Doug said whazzaaaaap. *Crrrrsshk*
I forgot to tell you. My dad is super corny.
Dad drops his imaginary intercom and beams at us, awaiting his praise. My brother erupts in belly-gripping laughter, clapping like a giddy seal. Meanwhile, if my eyes could roll any further back I’d lose them.
“All righty then,” Dad said, as he pops open the door to the engine room. A rectangular sign made of carved wood hangs beside the entrance which reads: Captain’s Quarters.
Moments later I hear him counting, “Five, four, three,” the engine rumbles to life with a choke, a cough and a splat. “Two.” I’m thrust backward as the boat etches forward. “One” we spread out into the bay.
As I turn and look behind us, the shabby, poorly lit dock is rapidly disappearing. The only sight ahead is California’s Golden Gate Bridge, shimmering with its ghoulish-orange glow. Our boat picks up speed, with a surprising amount of fire in its bones as the cold, rushing wind licks my face. I squint into the breeze and pull the collar of my shirt up over my nose. My brother, bouncing with glee in his seemingly bulletproof trench coat and thick beanie, spews pirate puns quickly as he can think of them.
“Arg, matey! Scrub the deck! Walk the plank! Batton down the hatches! LAND HO!”
Dad pops his head out of the small engine room. “Language,” he says with a playful frown.
We continued the chilly ride until we reach a point that seems about as far away you could get from one shore without getting closer to another.
As the zip of the engine and ruffle of the wind die, the noises are replaced with sounds of restless water slapping against the side of our boat. Dad steps out of an engine room filled with gears, levers, and a huge wooden steering wheel with a bunch of doorknob-type handles. The room looks like a tiny closet with enough space for two adults to stand side-by-side. Windows all around the engine room let us see our dad from the waist-up whenever he’s inside.
Dad shuffles out to the deck, stretching his arms wide like a rich host welcoming us to a grand feast. “Welcome to NOT-A-NAN-NOTTA-NOWHERE. Isn’t it gorg?”
Peering out onto the dark ocean, my singular thought is we could all be watching Netflix right now. I dig into my pocket and fish out my cell phone. The words: ‘NO SERVICE’ are shining brightly in the top left corner of the screen.
Annnnnnnd, this is the beginning of my horror movie. Remote location. Limited supply of food (which means we’ll get desperate and reckless). Plus, no contact with the outside world. All we need is a boat malfunction and a mysterious stranger to come along and offer assistance. To stop my thoughts from running away and inventing a bad Hollywood horror sequel, I scroll through my phone to see if I have anything worthwhile already downloaded.
“That’s the problem with you kids,” Dad says, frowning at me as I slip my phone back into my pocket. “No self-driven imagination. No theater of the mind. No factory of wonder. You rely on the imaginations of other people to tell you what something should look like, smell like, sound like, be like! When I was your age, there was no limit to how terrifying a thing could be. The monsters we created were reflections of our deepest, personal fears. Images and sounds that seeped into our psyche and married with our memories to create something unique and terrifying.”
I scoff. “You only thought that stuff was scary because Hollywood hadn’t made The Grudge yet.”
“Or, The Ring!” my brother chimes.
“Hollywood didn’t create the originals for either those mov-”
“Or, the Hills Have Eyes,” I jab. “Horror movies were hella bootsy back in the day. Bad FX. Bad acting. Terrible lighting. Overly-dramatic camera zooms. Totally unbelievable.”
Dad grabs his heart as if struck by an arrow. Then staggers like he’s about to keel over. “Okay, since you young punks are so tough, let’s play a game.” He gestures toward the two small benches on the deck.
My brother and I sit together on one bench and Dad sits on the bench facing us.
“When I was a boy, Papa Rick used to tell me stories I was definitely too young to hear. I was pretty tough, but one story scared me more than most. Let’s see if you can picture this in your mind. It’s the tale of the Vodyanoy: a Slavic sea monster blamed for drowning villagers in a small town.”
Sounds like my cousin.
“The Vodyanoy was or is a shape-shifter,” my dad whispers, leaning forward with his elbows digging into his khakis. “It was most known for transforming into a beautiful flower near the edge of the river, enticing villagers to wander near and admire its amazing array of colors: teals, pinks, warm oranges, deep lavenders, golds, and shimmering greens. At the same time, the flower pumped a sweet vanilla aroma into the air. When people came close, the flower would collapse, change into its true form and drag them, kicking and twisting, into the water. But, here’s the part that still creeps me out the most. The Vodyanoy was most known to mimic a flower but it could actually be anything. Me, you, this jacket, Leo’s beanie, Pugsley, anything!”
We glance over to Pugsley who was snoring and drooling on the floor near the Captain’s Quarters.
“Well, maybe not Pugs. But, can you imagine how terrified I was at your age of not only what the monster could transform into but what it looked like in natural form?” Dad clicks his gaze back and forth between my brother and I. “So, since apparently nothing scary ever happened before 2003, close your eyes, and let’s try this together. Let’s see if we can create something scarier than Hollywood. What does an evil, morphing sea monster really look like?”
No surprise, Leo shuts his eyes first closing them so tightly a million wrinkles appear on his eyelids. Dad tilts his head like a puppy, silently begging me to play along. I sigh and comply. Everything goes black.
“What do its hands look like?” My dad begins, speaking in a calm, even tone as if he’s leading group meditation.
“Is it tall?” he asks.
“Yeah!” My brother yips. “And slimy!”
“Okay, what about its nails? Are they long and dull like a sloth or small and bony like tiny fish fins?
“Fish fins!” my brother chimes again. “And its hands are like five-times bigger than yours, Dad!”
“Height, hands and fingernails. Check,” Dad chuckles. “Insult to my manhood, also check,” Dad mumbles. “What color is its flesh, Nee?”
Ugh. Forced participation. “Green?” I propose.
“Ooh la la, tell me more.”
I frown with my eyes still closed. “I guess it would have to have webbed fingers and toes to swim faster than people.”
“Thinking like a scientist! I love it! Now picture the face. Imagine it’s standing in front of you. What does it look like?”
“Hideous. With a face like a big trout. Its eyes are large, round and glossy. But, it never blinks.”
“Why doesn’t it blink, Nee?”
I can sense my dad smiling, pleased with himself that I might be enjoying this.
“I guess because it doesn’t have eyelids.”
“Yeah, Nee!” My brother yells. I can feel Leo bouncing up and down on the small bench we’re sharing.
“Now we’re cookin’!” My dad exclaims.
I hear something that sounds like bristles scrubbing a surface and assume it’s dad rubbing his hands together in excitement.
“Oh! And two rows of spiky fins on top of its head,” I continue, thinking who in the hell are you, Denise?
“So, like a double-mohawk?” Dad asks.
“Yeah! But sharp, for slicing through water and stuff. Like side-by-side shark fins!”
“A double-helping of Mr. T, check. Let’s dive deeper into its size. Is the creature tall, round, thin, buff, what’re we talking in terms of physique?”
“It needs to be tall, like I said,” Leo interjects. “Basically a little shorter than a basketball hoop. And super skinny, like an alien.”
“Okay, Kareem Abdul-Ja-Sea-Monster. Got it. Last one, what about its skin?”
“Shiny. Glisten-y,” my brother explains, scientifically. “Like it’s sweating.”
“Only, it’s not sweat,” I add, the words surprising even me as they were leaping from my throat. “I think its a type of mucus. Gooey and thick, something like syrup. If you touch it, it sticks you to the creature.”
I open my eyes to find Dad and Leo staring at me with wide eyes and a slight smirk.
“Geez, Nee. You’ve got skills. Is this what you do when you hog the bathroom every morning for forty-five minutes.” Dad winks at Leo and gives him a not-so-sly fist bump.
Dad stands up and leaps atop the small bench he was sitting on. Our ancient boat dips with this shift of weight as if it needs to be warned before any sudden movement. Dad looks down on us with the enthusiasm of a carnival-game salesman.
“Okay, team. We have a creature. Seaweed green skin. Eight-feet tall. Face like a trout. Large, round eyes.”
“That never blink!” Leo adds, with a finger in the air.
“That never blink,” Dad continues. “Two shark-fin mohawks. Big, sprawling hands. Five-times bigger than these beauts.” Dad spreads his fingers wide and shakes his hands in front of us. “Long, bony fingers with sharp nails. Webbing between its fingers and toes. And a gooey substance covering its whole body that sticks you to the creature if you touch it.” Dad exhales, smiling. “Sound right?”
Leo and I look at each other, shrug, then nod.
“Oh! One more thing.” Everything gets quiet as Dad stands atop the bench in the moonlight. He taps a finger thoughtfully against his chin. The only sound around is the slapping waves.
“BURRULAHH!” He shouts, leaping from the bench and trusting his strong, but gentle fingers into our stomachs.
Leo screams and jiggles with laughter. I jerk free of the tickle-attack and sock Dad in the arm. He wobbles. “Yaow! Have you been taking protein powder?”
A muffled noise resonates from Dad’s left pocket. He pulls out his phone and squints into the blindingly bright screen. His shoulders slump. He stops rubbing his arm where I punched him and his boyish smile fades. The unmuffled ringtone resembles a somewhat-familiar-villain’s theme music. Darth Vader, Dracula, Jaws one of them.
“It’s the office,” he whines. “Zee dark lord requires my attention,” he proceeds in a terrible accent.
“How are you getting service out here?” I groan, jealously.
“My work phone will probably get reception in the afterlife. Even then, they’ll ring me about things I’ve already sent them. Trust me; I envy your ‘NO SERVICE’ signal. I loathe you for it. I hate your guts like we’re both thirteen and have a crush on the same person. Like you bought the same outfit for a school dance after asking to see mine. Like we--”
“Dad!” I yell, pointing to his still-ringing phone.
“Oh, right. I’ll be quick. Then, I have something to tell you both.”
“Hey, John,” Dad says in his adult voice. He steps to the front side of the boat on the far side of the Captain’s Quarters. “Yeah, I did, but I’m spending time with my kids. Can it wait until Monday morning?” Pause. “Those numbers aren’t due for a week!”
The captain’s room is between us and Dad but I can still see his silhouette through the waist-high glass windows, pacing with one hand on his hip.
There’s a tap-tap-tap of Pugsley’s nails scraping the wooden deck as he stands up, wiggles himself then follows my dad to the other side of the boat.
Dad was the one who adopted Pugsley from the Berkeley Rescue Shelter as a gift for me and my brother. Pugsley not only seemed aware of this truth but remained eternally grateful. I’m a little ashamed to admit it but my dad does almost everything for our dog. Most of the feeding, walking, doggie-massages and veterinarian visits happen because of him. Pugsley knows this and tolerates my brother and me, but adores the old man.
Puglsey barks, attempting to support dad in his argument with his manager.
“Surprise, surprise,” I say turning to my brother. “Captain Distracted has to step away.” I huff, looking down at Leo. He says nothing. “When you get quiet I know you don’t agree with me.”
“He tries, you know. You could just attempt to be happy.”
“With what? Swapping parents every week? Needing two of everything because I can’t think of what I left at which place? They messed up their relationship and we live with the consequences.”
“Probably more to it,” Leo says calmly, searching for something in his coat pocket. He extracts a rusted gold monoscope, extends it to full length and peers out onto the bay.
“You know, stuff we’ll get later,” he says. “Grown-uppie stuff,” he continues, lowering his voice to sound more like an adult. He goes silent again. I can sense he doesn’t want to talk about this anymore. Honestly, neither do I.
“What do you see?” I ask, leaning forward.
“Uranus,” he blurts, letting out a breathy chuckle.
I walked into that one. And, it was truly my fault. But, I still sock him in the shoulder. I doubt he even felt it through his rhino-thick peacoat.
“I see water,” he says, disappointed. “Wanna look?”
I eye my brother’s contraption as he passes it over to me. Where did he even get this? He always had a thing for rummaging through bins at thrift shops and plucking out strange objects. Which, even though we’re from Oakland, is very Berkeley of him. I hold the monoscope with both hands. Heavy and solid, a faint engraving is carved into the side:
Made in Minsk
It has five sections which collapse down into a singular disc that looks like a golden camera lens. I close it shut, turn it over in my palm, then stretch it back to full-length. Squinting, I raise the peephole to my right eye and peer out onto the bay.
“Anything dope?” Leo asked, bouncing.
Through the fingerprint-smudged lens, I see nothing more interesting than a calm stretch of water. I tilt the monoscope up toward the orange glow of the Golden Gate Bridge to see if I can glimpse the lights of cars traveling to and from San Francisco. Nothing.
I tilt my gaze back down to the water. A shadow, with just its shoulders above water, is facing our boat.
“What the-!”I jolt and stumble backward as the eyepiece slips from my hand. The contraption hits the deck with a loud clunk.
“Hey!” Leo yells, chasing the eyepiece as it rolls away from him across the floor. “Easy with the merchandise. This belonged to Blackbeard’s first, second or third cousin.” Leo steps back beside me, inspecting his Flea Market artifact.
“What happened?” He demands.
“Something in the water,” I say, coldly.
“Really?” He looks up at me, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “We got action!” He breathes a hot breath onto the monoscope lens, rubs it briskly with his sleeve and holds it up to his face. “Where? Nee, where? I don’t see anything.”
“Over there,” I point, “near the edge of the moonlight. A little to the left. But I could’ve been seeing things.”
“There’s nothing over...nooo.” A small circle of water begins bubbling as if a tiny volcano is about to erupt beneath the surface. It’s happening so close to the boat I don’t need Leo’s device to see the bubbles pop like hot water in a cauldron under the moonlight. They burst more and more quickly as the sound escalates.
I feel a shameful urge to run and get Dad but my legs won’t work. I’m frozen again like when my cousin was tormenting Lucy in her yard. Except, this time, I think we’re Lucy.
The mass of bubbles starts sliding toward us.
Leo’s mouth falls open and his monoscope falls from his face.
“Well?” Booms from behind us.
“Yahh!” We spin around.
Dad frowns into his phone, clicking it off. Pugsley is next to Dad, leaning on his ankle. “I miss anything crazy?” Dad asks, slipping the phone into his pocket.
Leo mirrors my terrified expression.
“We saw something. In the water,” I manage.
“Like a jellyfish?” Dad queries innocently.
“No, like a person.”
“Then, the water started bubbling like it was in a hot pot!” My brother added, now shifting from fear to amusement.
“Okay, I’ll bite. What did this night-swimmer look like?” Dad asks, folding his arms.
“Slim,” I say. “Like he hadn’t eaten in a long time and was looking this way.”
“To my knowledge, Nee, no one skinnydips around here at night,” Dad replies.
Leo and I exchange blank stares again.
“No!” Dad throws his hands into the air like someone just scored a touchdown. “You don’t think? This makes me incredibly happy! I told you imagination was a force. Dee power of dee mind! You two are now having real experiences. Not that digital-tech-techy-technology stuff. Ahhh, I can’t tell you how many hours I spent as a little kid thinking of what was breathing under my bed, or eating in my closet or peering out from the sewer.”
Dad looks down, smiling reminiscently. Our faces must have been dripping with terror because he quickly adds “Oh, but kids, I never got hurt. Nothing ever hurt me. I’ll show you!” Dad shuffles to the side of the boat where we’re standing and bends over the edge.
He whips out his phone to shine a light into the water. “Come on, kids,” he shouts, folded at the waist with his face hanging over the other side of the boat. “Let’s see what we’ve got.”
We creep toward the side of the boat, flanking him on each side. Leo collapses his monoscope and drops it into his coat pocket. I ease my knees onto the thinly-padded bench and peer over the edge.
With his phone in his left hand, Dad plunges his right into the water. He reaches deeper, and deeper, until up to his elbow. He waves his arm around, swishing the liquid in a figure-eight motion.
“Yes. No. Wait,” he grimaces, stops swaying his arm side-to-side, and reaches deeper into the murky bay. The dark water creeps up his bicep. “Something’s here,” he tugs. Then, pulls stronger. Finally, he gives something a quick yank and extracts a slimy plant with dark green leaves and yellowish, egg-shaped bulbs. He plops the long, dripping plant onto the deck. Pugsley pops up, starts to come over and take a sniff but thinks better of it and collapses back to the floor, plopping his chin onto his front legs.
“Seaweed!” Dad screams, picking up the limp plant and waving it in front of my brother and me. “Some people eat this,” Dad says, shaking the plant, flicking some of its liquid onto my cheek.
“We can take a bite if you like.”
I sense a bit of the tuna sandwich I had for lunch arrive at the back of my throat. “I’m good.”
Leo shakes his head furiously.
Dad’s bouncing laughter is interrupted by the now-vibrating phone in his hand. I lean over to steal a glance at the flashing screen. It reads: “The Sith.”
“Disconnect, Dad,” I mock. “Be one with nature, dude. Be in the moment. This is the problem with you kids.”
“Well played, little human. Okay, it’s done. No more celly,” Dad scowls at the phone’s screen as he presses and holds the power button. “If I hear so much as a peep out of ye, I swear on me mummy you’ll walk dee plank.”
“Pirate jokes,” I say, unamused. “Give yourself a challenge.”
“Sometimes you gotta go with the sure thing. I never regret my decisions.”
“You sure?” I say.
“Ooo, low blow, Nee,” Dad steps closer to me and squares his shoulders to mine. I feel uncomfortable with the shift in mood. “Look, I know you’re mad at me for how things turned out between your mom and I. We loved each other but we weren’t perfect together. I’ve come to see we probably would’ve drifted for one reason or another but I certainly didn’t help us any by working all the time. I’m a little ashamed to say, it took me twelve years to realize our family didn’t need more money, it needed more time spent. More presence. More me. I don’t know if I’ve ever said this. But I’m sorry for my part in turning your lives upside down. I sincerely apologize.”
My face grows hot and my eyes bulge as water tries to escape them to cool down my cheeks. Looking up at Dad, I think I feel something tiny and tight release in my chest.
“You guys having to live through our mess is bootsy AF,” he adds.
“Boosty AF, huh?” I ask, suppressing a giggle, trying to maintain a ‘whatever’ expression.
“Baby girl, I gots the social meeds. I be all up in and on game,” Dad takes in a deep breath then lets out a slow, trembling exhale. “But, what does ‘AF’ mean? I couldn’t find it in the Merriam-Webster 2000 edition.”
I finally laugh and elbow him in the ribcage. My mouth full of thick saliva, I sniff to keep my nose from running.
Strangely, our decrepit boat jerks forward. The engine churns to life as the propellers pick up speed.
Dad frowns, turning to the Captain’s Quarters. “This old vessel truly has a soul of its own. Maybe a few souls. Better go check it out, could be your great-grandfather trying to drive. Problem is, Papa Rick wasn’t such a stellar driver when he was living. Doubt he’s improved much since crossing over. Do you think they have a DMV in Heaven? I bet there’s a heap of them in Hell.”
“Dad!” I bulge my eyes, gesturing to our haunted engine room.
“Right! BOOTY. I mean DUTY calls.”
Dad grins, expectantly.
“What? Not even a giggle? That’s some of my best material.” Dad walks away muttering, “Was it my delivery? The word selection? Did, I misread the crowd? I sort of invented the crowd, so they have to stroke my ego. I give you life and you can’t give me a fake chuckle.”
Dad disappears into the small room and the engine goes quiet again. He reemerges, studying something and tensing his brow. There’s something long and shiny in his hands. It looks like a golden tube.
“Hey. Leo, you know you’re not supposed to be in the engine room without me, right buddy?”
Leo squints down at the deck as if trying to recall where he’d been. Then, he lifts his gaze to dad “I wasn’t.”
“I found your monoscope rolling around in there?”
Pugsley, who had basically become one with the floor, lifts his head, barking frantically at Dad.
“Whoa, Pugs. Bro, I know we haven’t fed you since we left, but there’s no need to speak to me this way. I have feelings, you know. I’m a person with real feelings. There’s no excuse. No excuse!” Dad fake-sobs like he’s in a soap opera.
Leo, still squinting, reaches into his left coat pocket and pulls out a nearly identical gold monoscope.
Dad looks at Leo, then back at the monoscope he held. “Did you bring a spare?”
Leo shakes his head softly. I could see the blood was leaving Leo’s face as he became a little paler.
Dad goes into the captain’s quarters, sets the monoscope down and returns with a Tupperware container full of shredded chicken. He pops the lid and places it in front of Pugsley, who stops barking and hurls his face into his food. Even Pugsley’s ears are inside the bowl. His neck jerks with sounds of wet smacking, chewing and gasping. Watching Pugsley eat is not catching him at his cutest.
“Are either of my other dependents craving something delicious? Older spawn? Hmm? Younger spawn? We’ve got tasty snacks! I stopped by the Farmer’s Market and made it rain.”
My dad is still talking when I watch in terror as the door to the Captain’s Quarters slams shut. Dad and brother pivot toward the noise as the boat roars to life and jets forward.
We’re slung to the deck. Pugsley and his Tupperware bowl slide to the rear end of the boat and slam against the inside wall. Knees shaking, I clamber to my feet. The boat is zipping so fast its nose is tilting to the sky at a steep incline. I hunker into a crouched position and labor my way to the door before being frozen in place. Through the engine room window, I glimpse a figure with a bulbous head standing in front of the steering wheel. The boat smacks a wave and I’m cast back to the deck along with my dad and brother.
Dad crawls on his forearms, military-style, to the base of the door and reaches up to yank the handle. It doesn’t budge. He uses the stiff door handle to help him to his feet.
As Dad peers inside the room, I’m locked onto his reaction to whatever he sees. His concerned frown tells me nothing.
Did he see what I saw? Did I see what I saw?
Standing, Dad grips the door handle with one hand and throws his opposite elbow into the glass. It cracks. He slams his elbow into the glass again. This time, it splits into a spider web design. He leans forward, lets out a roar and gives it everything his frame has. The window shatters into shards of different sizes. He punches out the remaining shards of glass, reaches through and pops the lock. As the door swings open, I can see the inside of the room. Empty.
Dad studies the control panel, confused, then he snatches a pair of life vests off the wall, stumbles toward us and collapses to his knees. He yells something but I can barely hear over the scream of the engine and shout of the wind. He clamps one of the life vests between his knees and holds the other open like someone trying to help you put on your coat. I nod to Leo who is pinned to the ground like a salamander. He crawls to my dad and fights his way into the vest before Dad pulls the straps tightly.
I scoot toward Dad as he slides the second life vest from between his knees and holds it open. The thump of the next wave felt like hitting a speed bump in a car at 40 miles per hour. My dad flies into the air before crashing back down on his knees. I pop up like a pancake that was tossed up and supposed to flip over but didn’t.
I squirm into my vest and barely click myself in before my dad grips Leo and me by the nape of our vests. He staggers to his feet in a surfer’s stance and leaps off the edge of the boat. A sharp pain shoots through my leg as I bang my knee clearing the wooden edge of the boat.
Smashing into the water, the impact rips me from my Dad’s grip. I tug at my life vest as something begins dragging me backward through the water. I see our boat, bouncing on the choppy water, barrelling toward a shadowy wall of pointed rocks. I turn to face forward. My Dad, holding my life vest sternly with one hand and carrying my brother with his free arm, is sinking lower with each kick.
Spitting a mouthful of water, he turns to me. “I can’t tread. Nee, can you swim? With this vest? Can you swim?”
I can barely see him. In the darkness, his silhouette looks eerily similar to whatever I saw in the water before.
“Yeah!” I say, understanding he can’t carry us both and swim without a life vest of his own. “I’ll be right beside you.”
“Great, baby. Okay, swim for shore. Quickly!” My dad coughs as if he swallowed water the wrong way.
“Pugs!” My brother wails. “Pugs! C’mon, Pugs. C’mon. Follow my voice, boy! C’mon!”
I’m thrashing my arms as a small white circle motors past me.
Half an arm’s length behind Dad, I strain to catch pace. Suddenly, something slippery tightens around my left calf, like a powerful tentacle with sharp bones inside.
I pull my leg to break free and feel my pants leg rip. I gasp to belt a scream, before I am snatched under, my yell transforming into balloons of bubbles. I twist under the dark water and, though I can’t see a thing, whatever it is has my leg in a grip like a Boa Constrictor. It yanks my leg and drag me further below as my life vest is trying to pull me to the surface.
A blinding red flash of light explodes above the surface as a mighty ripple gallops through the bay. My eyes burn from the shock and shut tight. When they open, I see a long slender body, with the head of a fish in the murky, green glow. One of its gaping hands is gripping my leg. I scream, sacrificing nearly all of my air.
It’s haunting, yellow eyes inspect at me. Focused. Curious. Wanting. It opens its mouth revealing rows of teeth like arrowheads. My brain begins to shut down due to lack of oxygen. I give a weak shake, somehow managing to free my leg. It grabs at my foot, puncturing my shoe’s thick leather with its pointed fingernails. The searing pain strikes through my leg. I rattle my foot, wiggle the shoe loose and burst through the water’s surface. I vacuum the cool, night air into my lungs. The encroaching darkness from nearly running out of air retreats from my peripheral vision.
“DAD!” I scream. “D--”
I’m snatched back under.
I can see it in the water through the fiery glow of what must be our burning, crashed boat in the distance. It claws at my life vest, ripping it loose. I decide not to struggle for the jacket and squirm for the surface. It grabs me by the thigh. I kick it hard in the face with my left foot, but it doesn’t release me.
Something tugs my shirt. It’s crawling up my body. Something is in a tug-of-war with the creature. I can’t think. Is there more of them? A hot sensation sprints along the side of my calf.
“Come on, Nee!” Dad yells, lifting my shoulders above the surface.
He drags me backward through the water until it’s shallow enough that I can stand. I crawl to the shore and move as far away from the water as I can before collapsing in the sand.
My dad wraps his arms around us. I don’t realize I’m hyperventilating. Dad holds out heads to his chest and I can hear the rhythm of his heartbeat pumping wildly in my left ear.
Pugsley is running up and down the shore, barking rabidly at the dark waves.
“It had me. That thing had me!”
“Something was in the water,” my dad admits. “But, it wasn’t what we think. The Vodyanoy isn’t real. It’s just a story.”