Buoyant

by Hall Jameson

Tara peeled off her sundress and stepped out of her sandals, her toes sinking into the damp sand. It had been ten years since she had walked this stretch of shore. Moonlight flooded the water, painting the surface in buttermilk and rolling threads of cream. Eyes closed, she stepped forward. The surf greeted her, sampling her skin, tickling her ankles. She balled her fists. Inhaled. Exhaled.

The water terrified her.

You’re fine. Take your time.

The hushed voice of the surf whispered a story from long ago, a chalky memory from when she was five-years-old and fearless. Her parents had rented a cottage on Harrington Lake. Tara remembered sitting at the end of the dock, looking into the clear water, the bottom appearing much closer than it actually was. Tiny fish flitted below her dangling toes, their sides reflecting the sun in delicate rainbow patterns. She did not know how to swim, but the little fish made it look so easy.

She slid off the dock to join them, sinking like a stone. Beneath the surface, she looked around with wide eyes, the fish had disappeared, and an audience of swaying grasses reached for her. She flailed, trying to find the surface. Bubbles erupted from her mouth and nose as she tried to yell for her mother. Her struggle peppered the water with debris stirred up from the sandy bottom.

Tara froze when a thick form stirred in the shadows beneath the dock. It moved toward her, weaving from side-to-side, she sensed its fury at being disturbed, and its appetite, the glint of its bite flashing in the murk. She breathed in great gulps of water as she tried to scream.

Beyond the shadow of the dock, legs, fish-belly-white, moved toward her in slow motion, wavering arms reached for her above the surface. Her older sister, Kate, pulled her into the exquisite air. Tara retched, forcing the water from her lungs. When she could breathe again, she lay limp against her sister’s shoulder, wailing.

Her sister laughed, as if it was the funniest thing she had ever seen.

#

The ocean was a much bigger monster, home to creatures more terrifying than the thing Tara saw in the lake that day so many years ago. She was no longer five-years-old, but thirty-seven, and tonight it did not matter that she was petrified of the water, or that she still could not swim.

She was here to join her son.

She edged forward, the water lapping at her knees, then her hips. When the water was up to her waist, the waves nudged her back, as if trying to dissuade her. The jagged edges of razor clams jabbed her arches, pearly rocks snuck between her toes.

Tara closed her eyes and the cool rush of evening turned into the hot gaze of the sun, like that day in August, ten years ago, when the ocean selected her son.

The day had started perfectly, her husband and son playing in the surf while she stayed behind on the blanket, reading a book, well away from the waves. Her husband joined her on the blanket, shaking his head like a dog, spraying her with cool salty drops. Her son, Patrick sprawled on the other side of her, giggling. They rested in the hot sun. She was so happy, so relaxed. She drifted to sleep.

Her eyes snapped open at the sound of shouting. Several people sprinted toward the water. Her husband still dozing, she got up and walked to the water’s edge, hand saluted to block the sun.

“What’s going on?” She asked a woman pacing nearby.

“A boy went under,” the woman said breathlessly. “He was very far out.”

Tara looked back at the blanket, where her husband lay. Her son was not there.

“Patrick?” she said, turning in a circle, looking for him. She did not believe it was her boy lost in the water. That was impossible. Her son was an excellent swimmer.

She scanned the beach, searching for her son’s red swim trunks. She scanned the surface of the water, looking for his dark hair. She did not enter the water, but remained frozen at the lip of the sea, refusing to believe her son was lost, even as her husband sprinted by her, screaming his name.

Patrick’s body was never found. The newspaper reported he was claimed by the undertow and pulled out to the deepest water, but Tara knew something else had snatched him, a dreadful creature, saltwater kin to the one from her childhood that lived beneath the dock.

It had selected her son, and she had done nothing to save him.

#

The water now up to her shoulders, she ducked under, allowing it to swallow her head. Under water, her eyes closed and her cheeks puffed up with air, she blew out through pursed lips, forcing the air from her lungs, and waited for the ocean to claim her.

She was not afraid.

Open your eyes, Mom. It is beautiful here beneath the surface. Don’t be afraid, her son’s voice said.

Tara’s eyes snapped opened, expecting darkness and the sting of salt water, but instead, they felt perfect, her sight sharp, her surroundings not black, but a soft purplish-blue tinged with a warm golden glow. She gasped, and the water filled her lungs like a soothing balm, her new source of breath.

This way, Mom.

She spun in the water toward the voice, moving in slow motion. The water held her gently, like a lover; guiding her toward her son’s voice. She did not know how to swim, but the water taught her how to move, legs together, swaying side to side, arms made from flowing silk. She opened her mouth and inhaled the water in greedy gulps.

A suspended form hung in the distance, backlit by a honeyed light. She recognized the perfect toes, the outline of the shoulders, the shape of the head; the exquisite shapes her own body had created.
Patrick! Patty!

His arms and legs circled in the water as he held himself in place, waiting. She approached, moving easily, an unseen flow carrying her to him. Ten yards away, she could see his face, his beautiful face! He smiled down at her.

“Hi, Mom.”

Oh, Patrick! Is that really you? I’ve missed you so much, my darling boy!

He kicked in the water and moved toward her, reaching. When his fingertips were inches from hers, his expression changed, a shadow fell over his face, his smile turned into an ‘O’.

Mom, watch out! Behind you!

What–?

A massive force slammed into Tara’s belly, folding the breath from her lungs, knocking her back. She spun; reaching for her son, but something snatched her ankle and pulled her through the water, away from Patrick.

Mom!

Patrick’s silhouette became distant and diluted; a shivering form in the muted light, but she did not shout for help. She would not ask her son to save her.

The creature dragged her into the darkness and released her into the fingers of a strong current, which pulled her further away. Patrick floated in the distance, a tiny figure surrounded by a halo of gold. She tried to escape the grasp of the current, but her limbs were useless stumps, her body, sluggish.

The creature reemerged from the darkness below and darted by her, surprisingly fast for a creature so large. The momentum from its movement pulled her from the grip of the current. It circled back and hung in the water inches away from her. Its thick torso glowed, strangely iridescent, covered with plankton buttons and long jagged scars. Its gills were frayed perpendicular slashes. Its right eye rolled as it examined her; it opened its mouth slightly to reveal rows of spiky teeth.

Tara waited for the creature to devour her, her punishment for losing her son, but instead, the monstrosity spun around and propelled toward Patrick. It was upon him in seconds. She watched in horror as it snatched him by the leg and dragged him into the darkness below. His terrified voice floated through the water.

Mom! Help me!

Patrick! She moved toward his voice, her body no longer heavy and slow, but lithe, powerful, driving downward through the water until she felt the rough bed of the ocean floor beneath her fingertips, knobby beds of coral surrounded her. She clung to a fist of coral and looked for her son. Silver light flooded the bottom, illuminating the rocky outcroppings and awkward creatures that skittered along the floor.

The creature rested on the ocean floor a few yards away on its belly, eyes closed, Patrick nowhere in sight. Tara snapped off a piece of jagged coral and moved toward the monstrosity, ducking behind rocks and grasses. When she was within an arm’s length, the creature’s eyes popped open.

She sprung, plunging the coral into its right eye. She yanked the weapon free and slashed at its belly repeatedly. The creature bellowed and thrashed its tail, barely missing her head. It tried to swim upward and away, black fluid flowing from its wounds, but its movements were feeble, spasmodic. It sunk slowly, landing on its side in a nest of coral, where it lay motionless.

Tara scanned the ocean floor for Patrick. She found him sprawled a few yards away and lifted him gently into her arms, cradling him. His eyes opened and he looked at her.

I knew you’d come. He smiled and took her hand. Let’s go. I’ll show you how beautiful this place is.

They swam toward the surface, mother and son, swimming with schools of Yellowtail and mackerel, bluefish and sea bass. They danced beneath the shadows of stingrays. He led her safely through the reedy fingers of jellyfish. They moved through the water together for a time that was very long, yet not long enough. Patrick reached for her hand.

What happened to me wasn’t your fault, Mom.

Yes it was! She sobbed. I fell asleep when I should have been watching you. Protecting you. I’m so sorry, Patrick.

You have nothing to be sorry for. You were–are–a great mother It was an accident. I swam out too far. Please listen to me; I don’t want you to worry about me. I’m okay, he said, eyes shining. It’s been so wonderful to see you, but it’s time for you to go back.

No! I’m staying here with you. There are monsters. I’ll protect you. I’ll never let anything bad happen to you again, I promise!

There are no monsters here; this is a peaceful place, a safe place. That creature came with you, Mom, he paused, but you killed it. You saved me. He smiled. I have something for you. He pressed a silky rose-colored shell into her palm.

Oh, It’s beautiful! Thank you, darling. She kissed his cheek.

I love you, Mom. Someday we’ll be together again, I promise, but for now…

No, Patrick! I’m not leaving without you. Let’s swim together some more. Please! It’s so beautiful here.

Patrick hesitated, then said. Okay, Mom. I’d like that.

The water gradually grew brighter as they swam side-by-side, Tara elated that she would finally emerge from the sea with her son. Her body felt light and strong as she propelled through the water. She turned to Patrick, smiling. Her head broke the surface and she found herself on her stomach in the shallows.

Alone.

No! she croaked, pounding the sand with her fist. The ocean, the monster that had so brashly collected her son, had spit her back out.
Patrick’s voice drifted over the sound of the surf.

I love you, Mom. I’ll see you again soon.

I love you too! she sobbed, resting her cheek against the sand. Her right hand was next to her face, curled into a tight ball. She opened it slowly.

A perfect rose-colored shell rested on her palm, lovely in the early morning light. She sighed and gently closed her fingers around it, and watched the rising sun paint the sky the color of dreams.

The End