I floated in cold Atlantic water, arms draped over a section of wood reinforced with sturdy white plastic, next to my brother Andrew. He drifted in and out of consciousness, but raised his head now and again from the orange life ring. The one we bought in Key West before setting out on our ill-fated trip to Spain in the sailboat named after our mother, inherited from our father.
The storm was swift and sure, and chased us down for miles across open water before titanic waves tore our boat into pieces and cast us out. We were still together, and we still had a cooler partially full of melted ice and warm beer to keep us company. The cooler was tied to Andrew’s life ring, and every now and then it bobbed against my arm. A friendly little nudge.
“This fucking blows,” said Andrew, his voice slow and fuzzy. He was almost certainly concussed. He was too far from the beer to have been drinking. Besides, I don’t think I’d fallen asleep since the storm.
“Yeah,” I said. The sun boiled overhead, and I found myself wishing for clouds. Almost missing the storm as we drifted in the miserable heat on the flat Atlantic ocean.
“Do you think anyone’s going to come looking for us?” he asked. Andrew’s face was turned toward me, and he looked like a little kid again. Like he did when we shared a bedroom and he slept in a bed three feet away from me.
“Maybe,” I said. “Julie will miss us if we don’t show up in the next week or so.”
“A week,” he said. “A fucking week.”
“We might get lucky,” I said. “We can’t be the only boat out here. We’ve got a little water left in the cooler. And a couple of beers left.”
“So mostly water,” he said, and grinned. “That shit you drink isn’t really beer, Matt.”
“Fuck you,” I said, and we laughed together. Then something bumped against my leg, under the water. I kicked reflexively, and my heel collided with something rough and dense.
“What’s wrong? Matt, what’s happening?” Andrew raised himself up, buoyed by his life jacket, and balanced on the orange ring with his hands. I raised a finger to silence him, and pulled myself up onto the wood, and waited.
“Climb up here with me,” I said. "It’s a shark, I think."
Andrew’s eyes widened and he pulled himself up next to me. We sat there, legs crossed, and shaded our eyes with the palms of our hands. We waited, but the shark didn’t return. My brother and I watched for boats, and talked about the storm, about Spain, about the election, about anything but sharks.
We drank the beer first, worried it would skunk in the heat, but we saved one. For good luck, I guess. For celebration when we were rescued. Eventually, the sun set, and we drifted in the dark, carried along by the cool Atlantic current.
Andrew slept a little, head resting against my shoulder. I didn’t sleep, and twice I pulled his leg out of the ocean and back onto our makeshift raft.
The second day dawned, and even though the sun had just risen, it was already hot. I wished I hadn’t lost my hat when the boat sank.
“The last beer is yours.”
“So you admit it’s beer, now.”
“Barely,” he said.
“Nah, you take it,” I said, and laughed. “I’m not very thirsty.”
I fished the beer out of the cooler, then opened the bottle with my teeth. An old college trick that never failed to get a good reaction at parties.
“Still got it!” he said, and took the beer from me. I handed it to him, but the bottle was slippery from floating in a cooler full of lukewarm water, and it tumbled, landing off the side of the raft. Andrew’s hand darted out, closing around the bottle before it could sink.
It swam up then, a huge gray and white shape that appeared out of nowhere. The shark’s mouth closed around my brother’s arm, and then it yanked. Andrew screamed, and scrambled to get away, to grab onto the raft, to grab my hand. But the shark was insistent, and it pulled once more, and Andrew went under. I scrambled to grab Andrew by his leg, by his foot, by anything, but he was already gone, beneath our flimsy plastic raft.
The current pulled me away, out of water full of my brother’s blood, as I cursed myself for a coward. I should have jumped in after him, should have tried harder, should have saved him.
The cooler floated behind me, still tied to the raft, full of melted ice and a single drop of blood.
I was asleep when the shark came back for me, belly flat on the smooth plastic scrap that used to be my father’s boat, arm floating below me in the water. It nudged against my hand, gently, almost playful, and then I was awake. Wide awake, more awake than I’ve ever been in my life.
Movies were my only reference point for sharks. We’d been living down in Key West for a few years, but I’d only ever seen a handful of dolphins. This time I saw it, a huge darkness moving beneath the pathetic piece of plastic and wood that kept me safe. Twice as long as I was tall, at least. Maybe more.
It swam beneath me, then circled around and came back. I pulled myself up onto the raft, curling my limbs inward, trying to make myself as small as I could. I closed my eyes, blocking out the setting sun, and then the world went dark. I held on as something massive surfaced, with a great black fin larger than the sail from my father’s boat blotted out the sun. It wasn’t a whale. I’d seen whales, on sightseeing trips with my brother.
This was something else, something from the depths, and it came for the shark. I heard a great roaring intake as the creature opened its maw and clamped down on the shark that took my brother, and split it in twain.
The creature was close enough I could have reached out and touched it. Close enough I couldn’t make out many details, other than many hundreds or thousands of parasites attached to its skin, scuttling around on the surface in the unexpected air, digging into its black flesh for stability and nourishment. Its skin was alive with creatures, some as large as my hand, crawling and scrabbling for purchase.
Its head was ringed with multiple eyes, like a spider, each perhaps three feet in diameter. Huge and yellow, blinking out of sync with each other. I felt heat radiating from it, as the thing seemed to consider me.
And then it was gone, back to the depths. The air stank of it, and the blood of the shark, as its passing pulled my little raft underneath the surface momentarily. I clung to it, tightened my life jacket, and climbed back on top when it bobbed to the surface once more.
The night air cooled my wet skin, and I shivered beneath a new moon in the cool Atlantic current.