By: DC Foster
The azure radiance had no end – just a global horizon where the sky curled around the planet and out of sight. A range of mountainous clouds navigated the blue above, leaving smoky trails in their wakes. The sun, in full bloom, presided over all.
The ocean inhaled and exhaled, splintering the giant clouds’ rolling reflections with foamy spittle. White caps sprung and hissed as the water groaned with each breath.
The inflatable lifeboat, a gritty vinyl thing resembling a cleaved mango, moved at the mercy of the ocean. White caps and rouge waves nipped at its low sides. Water pooled inside. An empty plastic bottle floated atop the pond.
Gavin wrapped two sunburned hands around his legs and pulled his knees to his chest. The long-sleeved shirt, denim shorts and canvas shoes he wore were soaked with sea spray. A red beach towel, maroon with moisture, lay over his head.
Tinnitus pierced his ears. Loudly. Simultaneous modem-frequency high notes squealed unrelentingly on each side. He heard only the ringing and the laboring ocean – all else was too soft to overcome the chimes between his ears.
Gavin touched his forehead. A patch of skin parted where a gash bit into the thin cranial tissue. Crusty burls of dried blood covered the wound. Gavin slid his hand across the side of his face and felt translucent fragments of sunbaked skin cling to his fingertips. He returned his hand to his knees and stared into the distance.
A silver medallion the size of a quarter hung around Gavin’s neck and rested against his shirt. He brushed his thumb across the medallion before lifting it over his head and holding it before him. A profiled, bearded and balding Saint Peter looked back at him. Gavin caressed the pendant, slowly, and closed his eyes.
“I’m starting to think there’s no one on the other end of this medallion.” Gavin spoke quietly. “I’m in trouble, and I need help. I need someone’s help. Please, if you can hear me – if anyone can hear me – I need help. Now. Please just …”
Gavin slipped the leather band back over his head and returned the medallion to his chest. He slid down the raft until his head rested against the raft’s inflated side. He pulled the towel over his face and arms, and he closed his eyes. Gavin drifted into the semi-conscious restfulness he’d come to consider sleep. There were no dreams – just a shadowy black backdrop and quiet buzz.
The empty water bottle, jostled by the waves, glanced off Gavin’s foot and reeled him back to reality. He opened his eyes and pushed the towel off his face. Gavin scowled at the empty bottle. It taunted him. He plucked it from the raft’s puddled floor. Its blue label had wilted and faded almost white. It was dying under the sun. Gavin uncapped the bottle and put it to his lips, hoping for one last drop of unsalted liquid. He tasted nothing but warm plastic. He wanted to heave the bottle into the sea, but the thought of catching rain kept it in his hands. He looked at the sky – cloudless and sun-bathed. Terrible. A desert above and a desert below. A refrain played over his thoughts.
Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
Gavin closed his eyes and let his arm tumble over the side of the raft, plunging the bottle into the cool ocean. It filled quickly. He pulled his arm from the water and held the bottle against his chest. A cool current spread through his upperbody. He ran the bottle across his eyebrows and cheeks, extinguishing fires in his pores. He pressed the bottle to his neck and rolled it under his chin. Condensation dripped through his whiskers.
Gavin ran the side of the bottle across his lips. His tongue followed its path. Moisture. He tasted no flavor. The relief of liquid – any liquid – across his mouth outweighed all sensations. Gavin closed his eyes and brought the bottle to his mouth. The refrain returned.
Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.
Gavin raised the bottle. The cool, salty water touched his lips.
Nor any drop to drink.
Suicide. The thought stabbed the poetic refrain.
Gavin tipped the bottle further until the saltwater cascaded down his chin and onto his chest, wetting the medallion of Saint Peter. He dropped the empty bottle at his side, ran a still-parched tongue across his lips and refashioned the towel over his head.
The sun was high and the ocean was calm. The water moved in a hypnotic rhythm, just as it had before. Before. Gavin closed his eyes and shook his head. This didn’t make sense. He touched his head wound; the sting spiked his tinnitus. A dual flash of internal and external pain clenched Gavin’s body. He studied the unbroken horizon and wondered what was on the other side.
Vincent and Diane had commissioned the yacht in Vanuatu. It was perfect, they’d said – a seventy-foot Hampton with a Fiberglas hull, three staterooms, three heads and twin diesel engines. The boat was equipped with a digital TV, two satellite phones and a Nobeltech PC Nav System Northstar 6000i GPS. Everything was state-of-the-art, touchscreen, remote-controlled and prone to constant malfunction.
A three-day jaunt across the South Pacific with friends from high school? Gavin and Jenny couldn’t say no.
Two refrigerators were stocked with everything but meat. The captain, a balding Frenchman with a ghastly limp, had pointed to the endless stretch of blue protruding from the docks and declared, “There is your protein”. And he was right – there was no shortage of writhing creatures snapping at everything from shiny plastic lures to the decapitated heads of their brethren.
The plan had been to sail three-hundred-plus miles from Vanuatu to New Caldonia, where they’d stay three days before catching a constellation of flights back to California. The trip was to be a booze-soaked week of fishing, cooking, card playing, gin drinking and reminiscing on the South Pacific. Hallucinogenics and the possibility of wife-swapping loomed. And it was a blast. Until it wasn’t.
The sun shone above and reflected below. The ocean’s overexposed surface radiated light. Gavin stacked one hand atop the other, closed an eye and squinted through the shady narrow space between his fingers. He scanned the bending horizon, hoping to see the outline of a ship, an island, a tree, a bobbing coconut. He saw nothing. Gavin scanned again, backward. Any deviation in form, even the tiniest bump against the razor-sharp horizon could be something. Something! He saw nothing.
Gavin sunk back into his corner. His mind shuffled through split-second thoughts – his wife and two young sons, his parents, the job with the advertising firm, car payments, house payments, insurance payments. Everything he’d gone on the trip to escape was now gone. He imagined one day laughing at the irony. The thought was fleeting. Gavin grasped the medallion of St. Peter hanging around his neck and squeezed tightly.
“Just wait with me a little longer. Give me a little longer, Saint Peter,” Gavin said hoarsely. “Make this be over soon, but don’t make it the end. You can bring someone to me. Bring someone.”
Gavin closed his eyes and let the singing tinnitus deafen his thoughts and surroundings. He slunk supine and his breath deepened. Gavin put a hand over the pendant and sunk into his unconsciousness. Coolness settled beneath the towels. The ocean steadied.
The room was muddy beige – beige tile floor, beige concrete walls, beige stucco ceiling. It was windowless and without doors – the inside of a cardboard box. Mellow light poured from the ceiling in vaporous clouds, exuded like steam from the solid ceiling. The misty light spread in variegated strips that congealed into a patchy glow a few feet from the ceiling.
A boxy television atop a nightstand showed a muted movie. The screen’s glow refracted in the thick light and cast rainbow reflections across the room.
Occupied twin beds flanked opposite walls.
Gavin lay prone with a sheet pulled to his waist and a pillow beneath his head. His shirtless chest and arms were pale; his skin was clear and unmarked. He ran his fingers across his forehead and nose. The skin was soft. There was no burn, no wound. He touched his lips. Smooth. He wondered why he wasn’t thirsty.
The man across the room lay still except for his bare feet, which gently, but repeatedly brushed against one another as if shooing mosquitoes – side-to-side bumps, rolling upward swipes, toe-stepping, heel rubs. The man’s chestnut skin creased around the corners of his lips and eyes, and his black forest of curly hair receded noticeably. Gavin pegged him to be in his forties – early to mid. The man wore a white V-neck T-shirt and blue jeans. His beard was trimmed and his clothes unwrinkled. He looked like a musician or a poet.
Gavin cleared his throat and swallowed. “Sir, sir? Excuse me, sir.”
The man stirred and calmed his moving feet. He looked at Gavin with eyes colored same as the walls.
“Hey … umm.” Gavin again cleared his throat and spoke louder. “Hey, why aren’t there any doors or windows in this place?”
The man ran a pink tongue across his lips and glanced about the room.
“You know, that ain’t often a person’s first question,” he said. An easy-riding cowboy-esque accent played beneath the surface of his speech. His words traveled as slowly as the gaseous light pouring from the ceiling.
Gavin nodded. “Right, but where are we? How did I get here?”
The man sat up. “Now those are fair questions. Very fair. But, first things first, you should know that you’re okay. This is a safe place where people get taken care of, get mended. You’re fine here. How’d you get here? That’s a bit trickier to answer. But I wouldn’t worry ‘bout it – just focus on feelin’ better. You’ll be outta here soon.”
Gavin heard words, but no answers. “But where are we? Why am I here? What happened to the boat? How’d I get off the raft?”
“Slow down, slow down.” The man pumped two palms at Gavin. “Look, the past – what happened, how you got here – that ain’t important right now. We’re in this room to consider the future. You’re future. Now you’re just gonna rest a bit.”
Gavin propped himself on an elbow and fixed his eyes on the man. “But what about the boat? What happened on the boat? And the raft? I was alone at sea, what happened to …”
The man ran a hand through his thicket of black hair. “The boat’s gone. Raft’s gone too. But you’ll have to figure out what happened on your own. Those memories are stirring somewhere in your mind, and, at least for right now, it’s gonna be up to you to dig ‘em out. You’re gonna have a lot of time to figure all that out. No sense doin’ it now.”
The man stood, smoothed his shirt and leaned forward to straighten the sheets. A necklace fell from his shirt and a silver medallion dangled in front of his chest. Polished as sharply as a mirror, it caught the light of a refracted rainbow and sent a multi-hued bolt across the room.
Gavin stared at the pendant. The man followed Gavin’s eyes and placed a hand over the medallion.
“I spent a good portion of my life fishing, Gavin, and I learned a few lessons being alone on the water.” The man rubbed the medallion between his thumb and forefinger. “You come to understand the true meaning of loneliness when you’re out there, you know – a speck on a liquid continent. You talk to yourself just to hear a human voice. You brutalize fish in blind frustration. You fetishize and humanize and demonize objects as you would people. It’s solitary confinement in the wide open. The mind loosens. Irrational becomes rational. The imagination spins wildly. Reality and fantasy mix.”
The man lifted the medallion and studied it.
“We see things we don’t understand,” he said. “The body does things it’s not meant to do, survives things it ain’t meant to survive. And why?”
Gavin, still on an elbow, answered reflexively. “Why?”
The man laughed. “Maybe it’s got something to do with the mind. Hell, I don’t know. The body just does. Now you’ve got something else you can work on figuring out.”
The man reached behind his neck and unfastened the leather band. He tossed the medallion onto Gavin’s bed. “This is yours. I just kept it company while you rested. Probably about time to get it back to its owner.”
Gavin took the medallion. It was cool to the touch. He fastened the leather band behind his neck and pressed the pendant to his breast. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Rest,” the man said. He placed a hand on Gavin’s shoulder. “I’m a friend – that’s who I am. Please, rest now. Lie down, for cryin’ out loud.”
Gavin slid down the bed and stretched his legs.
The man stepped back. “Good, good. Rest, Gavin. Sleep.”
Gavin blinked away thick shards of salt as he tried to see through the blinding sunlight. He swallowed dryly and wiped his face. Flakes of skin crumbled beneath his touch and raw skin screamed at the contact. Shallow pools of water clung to the raft’s corners, but its center was dry. Gavin’s clothes were briny and stiff. He dragged a foot across the raft’s solid bottom.
Gavin sat up and opened his eyes wider. He reached over the side of the raft and scooped a handful of powdery white sand. The beach stretched fifty yards in each direction before vine-covered dunes formed a sheltering crescent and climbed out of view. Gavin’s hands shook. The ripple moved up his arms and down his legs. His breathe quickened.
Gavin slid to the side of the raft and pulled his body over the edge, rolling until he lay on a bed of warm sand. The sun engulfed him, but cast no heat. He felt only the stillness of the ground beneath him. He turned onto his side, closed his eyes and sunk his fingers into the sand’s cool depths.
Gavin’s body relaxed. The angry energy of fear and paranoia he’d bottled for days – maybe weeks, he didn’t know – finally drained from his body. An easy comfort rose from the sand. Gauzy imagines of a man with wild black hair beat through Gavin’s psyche, as vague and thin as a fast-fading dream. The man spoke unintelligibly in front of a hazy brown background. His feet moved beneath him, but his body was still. Gavin touched the medallion around his neck.
Clipped words from a foreign tongue. Pressure.
Gavin’s eyes shot open. A man was shaking him, softly, almost curiously. Gavin’s vision sharpened. Mahogany eyes set deep inside a brown face loomed above him. More clipped speech. It sounded frantic and jarring. Hands waved. Another face. Water touched his lips – fresh water. Gavin gulped it. Two men lifted Gavin by his arms and pulled him to his feet. They pointed toward the sandy dunes with an arching motion. One of the men patted Gavin’s chest. “OK now,” he said. “You OK now.”