Shark Season

Spring broke early that year. It came tromping in through the middle of February, sending the bitter nights and biting winds of winter scurrying back into the shadow of memory.

Roger Gabriel stood on the deck at the edge of is his pool, thinking it was about time to get the old pump going again. The water had grown thick and slimy, green from months of stagnation; dead leaves and the husks of drowned insects drifted like derelict ships across the surface.

The sun shone down from a perfect blue sky, and the warm breeze tugged playfully at the collar of his shirt. Roger took a deep breath and let it out. It occurred to him he was very close to being happy, and he tried to remember the last time he had felt this way. Not for more than four weeks weeks. Not since-

The phone rang. The sound carried through the window Roger had opened to let the spring air into the house, clanging alarm-bell urgent in his ears. His heart jumped in his chest, and he felt a familiar terror begin to claw at his gut. He squeezed his eyes shut and shoved his fingers in his ears like child, but he could still hear the sound, dim and distant, braying its accusation at him. “Go away,” he whispered. “Please just go away. It’s not my fault. It isn’t ME you want. I didn’t do it.”

Eventually the ringing stopped. It would come again.

“Filters,” Roger told himself. “We need filters. Get rid of the bad, keep the good.”

At the store when he swiped his debit card to pay for the filters and the chemicals, the register made a strange squawking noise; the cashier, a painfully young girl with her hair back in a ponytail, informed him that his card had been declined. He nodded numbly, and reached for the last of his cash.

It was only twenty dollars, but he had been saving it, hiding it really, planning to splurge on something nice. And now it was gone. Because of her.

Back at home he installed the filter in the pump and set it running. He poured the various quantities of chemicals into the pool, imagining himself a mad scientist preparing deadly toxic goo in a huge cauldron. But when he looked down into the green water he saw a kind of darkness there that he did not like.

The phone started ringing again the moment he stepped inside. He looked at it and felt his stomach twist into a knot.

He could ignore it, just let it ring.

But he was struck with the strange superstition that the person on the other end of the line knew he was there. It was silly of course. It was only coincidence that the phone had begun ringing at that moment, the very moment his foot had crossed the threshold of the door.

This he knew. But he did not believe. And with trembling fingers he reached out and picked up the receiver.

“Hello?”

“Hello, am I speaking with Mr. Gabriel?” The voice on the other end of the line was young and sweet. Too young. Too sweet. Roger thought again of the girl who had checked him out at the supermarket. When had the world gotten so young?

“Mr. Gabriel?”

“Yes,” he croaked. “That’s me.”

“Mr. Gabriel, my name is Samantha Harrington, and I’m calling on behalf of Regis Debt Consolidation about the unpaid balance on your Visa credit card.” She rattled off the account number and Roger caught himself nodding, as if she could see him.

“That’s-” he swallowed hard, “That’s my wife’s card. She’s not here right now, but-”

“Mr. Gabriel, the account is more than three months overdue with a balance owed of nineteen-thousand eight-hundred and sixty-two dollars. When can we expect payment?”

“I can’t. It’s not-”

“Mr. Gabriel if you don’t make a good faith effort to pay on this account I’m afraid I’ll have to transfer your debt to our legal team.”

Roger felt something snap in his mind, his carefully-measured restraint breaking with what he almost believed was an audible popping sound. “It’s not FAIR!” he shouted, suddenly past caring what this girl thought of him. “I didn’t do it. Not one red cent. I tried to stop her. I tried to tell her to be careful, but she wouldn’t listen. And YOU…”

“Mr. Gabriel-”

“…you put it in front of her like a pile of candy in front of a child. What did you think she was going to do? Did you think she would show self restraint? Did you think she would stop? With a wallet full of free money and those wonderfully low minimum payments. You’re  all nothing more than loan sharks, you hear me? With big names and legal departments instead of guns. Well you’re going to have to transfer that account, Samantha. You’re going to have to send your legal goons after me to break my kneecaps. Because there is NOTHING…LEFT!” His voice had pitched up into a shriek, and he slammed the phone down into the receiver and sank down to the floor, his shoulders shaking with grief and rage. When the phone rang again he ripped it from its mooring and hurled it across the room. It landed with a satisfying clatter, made a final lonely, “ting” sound and fell silent.

But that wouldn’t stop them, he knew, it wouldn’t even slow them down. There were other ways they could get at him. So he got up and returned the phone to its place. Temper tantrums were for children. He had to be better than that.

He was just plugging the cord back into the wall when he heard a key turn in the lock and saw the front door begin to open.

His wife stumbled through, her arms wrapped around two shopping bags that would be filled with clothes or shoes that she would likely wear once, if at all.

She looked up at him, her eyes momentarily wide with surprise. “You’re home early,” she said, an uncertain smile playing across her face. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” Roger said. “Fine. It was- well you know how nice the weather’s been lately, and we finished early on the project we were working on, so I asked Mr. Howard, and he said that it would be okay with him if I, you know, knocked off early.”  He was aware that his words were running into one another, and his palms were sweating, but Stephanie didn’t take any notice.

“That’s nice dear. And before you say anything, I know you said we should try to cut back a little, but these shoes were just to die for and they were practically giving them away, so I thought it would be okay, just this once.”

Roger wanted to scream. But he didn’t.

She smiled and drew him in for a kiss, and he found himself giving in in spite of himself, her arms around his neck, his circling her waist drawing them together, lips and bodies moving against each other with a need that had not faltered through ten years of marriage.

She broke it off after a moment, gave him a smile that said “We’ll have to explore this further later,” and trotted off to the bedroom with her bags.

He loved her. He hated her.

He needed her, and for that he hated himself.

The phone rang.

 

He lay awake that night long after his wife had slipped off to sleep, and tried to find the words to tell her the truth. The conversation always played out the same way in his head, always ended with her leaving him, finding someone younger, more handsome, richer.

It had been four weeks, and he still hadn’t told her. Four weeks of leaving in the morning just like he always did and sitting in the McDonalds down the highway, nursing a cup of their cheapest coffee and staring out the window at the cars flashing by on the highway.

And thinking. So much thinking.

Finally, around three in the morning, after hanging somewhere between a nightmare and the terror of his conscious imagination he slipped quietly out of bed and went outside. He had thought only to get a lungful of fresh air, but once he was out there in the dark he heard the pump running and found himself climbing the stairs to the wooden deck that surrounded the pool. He stood there for a long time watching the moonlight flickering off the dark water.

On an impulse, he climbed down into the pool, still in his pajamas, tensing against the chill of the water, jolted into wakefulness.

He pushed off the ladder, lay back in the water, and looked up at the stars overhead. If he held his head just so all he could see was the black starry sky. He could imagine himself drifting slowly, forever through an endless ocean, peaceful, suspended beneath a glittering black firmament.

The image it formed in his mind was so perfect that when the bubble of the idea finally burst he found his eyes filling with bitter tears.

He shook his head, righted himself, tried to stand. But instead of finding the vinyl floor of the pool his feet kicked down into water far deeper than it should have been.

He thrashed about in a sudden panic, and for a moment his head dipped below the surface. He kicked over to the edge of the pool where he clung to the ladder, shaking. He looked down into the water, eyes searching for the familiar blue nylon and finding only blackness instead.

It couldn’t be. Someone had…what? Dug out the bottom of his pool and filled it with water again? It didn’t make any sense.

He took a deep breath and ducked under, pushing himself down the ladder rung by rung, feet dangling down into the impossible dark water. He ran a hand along the curved side of the pool, down down down, until…

It simply ended. He could feel the edge of the thin strip of nylon and beyond it, impossibly, was more water. He pulled himself up toward the surface, mind reeling, and just then he felt something scrape against his foot, something rough and jagged like sandpaper. He looked down and caught a glimpse of a ghostly white shape, and then he was heaving himself up and out of the pool, collapsing on the deck, clinging to it, something solid. Something familiar.

It couldn’t be real.

Of course it wasn’t real. He’d been under a lot of stress. He was tired. His mind was prone to…tricks. That’s all this was. A trick. Nothing more.

He got up then, keeping his gaze carefully averted from the pool, and went back to bed.

 

By the time Stephanie shook him awake the next morning, telling him he had overslept his alarm clock, Roger had convinced himself that the whole episode had been nothing more than a dream.

He stood over the sink crunching a piece of jellied toast while Stephanie told him her plans for the day, and scolded him for not hurrying along faster to make up for lost time.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m really meant to do this,” he said casually, brushing the last of the crumbs from his shirt. “Sometimes I think I’ve missed my calling.”

“Don’t be silly. You love your job. And it pays so well.”

He shut his eyes and felt his teeth clench together. “When I was younger, I used to think one day I’d be some sort of artist,” he said, forcing calm into his voice. “I was never very good with paints, but I did some good stuff with pencils and charcoal.”

She laughed then, not a mocking laugh, but a sound of true mirth, and somehow that cut him even deeper. “I can’t imagine you as an artist,” she said. “And I certainly can’t imagine myself as an artist’s wife.”

“No,” he said, picking up his briefcase and heading for the door. “I guess I can’t either.”

And later, as he sat at the table by the window facing the highway the conversation festered inside of him like a sore.

When he’d met Stephanie he’d thought she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. Now, even after ten years of marriage, he still thought so. But he had learned that if you wanted to pay with the shiniest toy in the store you had to pay the price.

She was ten years younger than him. And that had been ten years ago. The years had been kind to her. She was the same perfect creature she had been when she first caught his eye. He had not been so blessed. At thirty he had been vaguely handsome, his gut only slightly thicker than it should be, his hair only showing the first signs of thinning. Now he was downright pudgy and wisps of what was left of his hair drifted over his scalp like winter clouds. Once, last year when he and Stephanie had been out on a date night someone had mistaken her for his daughter.

If Carl had been a more cynical man he might have thought of his wife as a gold digger, but that line of thought didn’t ring true. He hadn’t been even close to the biggest fish in her pond when it came to money. She’d fallen in love with him because he’d worked very hard to make her fall in love with him.

He was a dog who’d finally caught the car he’d been chasing, teeth ripped from their gums, body lying broken in the road waiting to be flattened into a bloody pancake by the oncoming traffic of life.

He pulled a cheap ballpoint pen from his pocket and stared at it long and hard, as if he might divine some deep truth from its design.

Then he was scratching, scribbling, scrawling on a wrinkled napkin, the point of the pen ripping through the thin paper leaving shreds of the material hanging like tattered ribbons of flesh. When he was done the napkin was covered in ink from corner to corner, angry lines crisscrossing, a chaos of intersections across the paper. The only place left untouched was at the center, where a patch of white marked out a strangely familiar silhouette, a thing of power and grace that lived in the void between the lines. Roger looked at the thing, at the sleek torpedo of its body and the razor curve of its fins, and saw without understanding the thing he had created. But had he created it? Or was it there all along? Just under the surface, lurking, gliding, hunting…

Then he thought of the pool; and understood.

He left the coffee, cold by now, sitting on the table, but he slipped the napkin in his pocket, folding it carefully so as not to muss the edges.

 

Stephanie was gone by the time he got home, off socializing with one friend of hers or another; he could never quite tell them apart. Roger didn’t bother going into the house, but instead went straight to pool in the back yard. Here in the light of day, there was no denying what he was seeing: there was no bottom.

The water was dark, yes, but it was clear. And down below where the pool’s walls ended the water went on and on in limitless blackness.

He grabbed the extendable pole with the net on the end used for dipping leaves and other debris from the water.  He plunged it into the pool, pushing it down as far as it would go. It didn’t hit bottom.

He heard the phone start to ring, but it was a distant thing now, holding no more terror than the half-remembered monsters of his childhood.

He went inside and found a spool of string and a heavy lead fishing weight and then back out to the pool where he dropped the weighted string into the water. The plastic spool spun and spun in his hands for a long time until the string ran out and the sudden jerk yanked the spool out of his hands. It fell, bouncing once on the deck then disappearing over the edge into the water. Roger lay on his belly and crawled toward the edge of the pool peering down into the water. There was no sign of the spool, but down there in the impossible depths he thought he saw something move, no more than a hint of a shape, a grey-white streak against the perfect darkness. And then it was gone.

He took the napkin out of his pocket, and looked at the thing he had drawn once again, and then he understood what he had to do.

At the store again he rummaged through clothing racks in the women’s section. He saw a sales girl giving him an odd look, and he flashed her a smile. She turned away with something like disgust on her face.

On his way home the gas light in his car came on with a ding. He ignored it. It didn’t matter now.

He put the things he had bought in an old gift bag printed with red hearts he’d used for Valentine’s two years ago.

He was just shoving some tissue paper into the mouth of the bag when he heard her car in the drive. He met her coming in the front door. She kissed him like she always did, but there was something different in her eyes.

“I’m so glad you’re home early,” he said. “There’s something I wanted to show you.”

She didn’t seem to hear him. “I saw Arthur in the store today,” she said. “He said-”

“I got you a present,” Roger said, bringing the bag around from behind his back.

“He said you’d been laid off,” Stephanie went on, not even looking at the bag he pressed into her hands. “Nearly a month ago. Is that true?”

This was not part of the plan. “Stephanie, I-”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I wanted to. But…well-”

“I checked our bank account. We’re overdrawn. How are we going to-”

Listen,” he said, more sharply than he meant, then again, more softly, “Listen. I didn’t want to worry you. Things have been bad, yes, but-”

The phone started to ring. Stephanie stepped toward it, but Roger put out a hand to stop her. “It’s probably a telemarketer,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm. He could feel the old panic trying to overwhelm him, but he pushed it down. He was in control. He could do this. “I’ve looking for a new job,” he said, his voice strained as he struggled to maintain the facade of normalcy. “I’ve got some good prospects. I just didn’t want you to worry.”

She shook her head and an infuriating look of pity came into her face. “I’m your wife. We’re in this together. For better or worse, right?”

“Till death do us part,” he agreed, fingernails digging into the flesh of his palm. “But right now I want to forget about all of that just for a while. Open the present I got for you.”

She still looked uncertain, but she dutifully tugged away at the tissue paper, and when she saw what lay beneath a mischievous smile danced across her lips. “I thought I heard you running the pool pump the other day,” she said.

Almost there, he thought. “I know it’s early, but it’s been so warm these last few days. And I just thought, well…”

She gave him a peck on the cheek. “Give me a minute,” she said. “I’ll be right out.”

 

He was sitting in one of the deck chairs soaking in the sun when she came out the back door wearing the two-piece bathing suit he’d bought for her.

It was a simple thing: no frills, no pattern. It was red. Red like love. Red like blood.

He stood up, all too aware of how his gut hung over the elastic of his swim trunks, and gave her an appreciative smile. “You look great honey.”

She said nothing, only wrapped her arms around him, and raised her lips to his. When he broke off the kiss, she ran a hand down his arm. “We’re going to be okay,” she said. “You and me.”

“I know,” he said, adjusting his grip on the pen knife in his hand. “Now how about that swim?”

He jumped into the water first, dropping in cannonball style, and she followed his lead, splashing in with a giggle.

She surfaced next to him, a confused look on her face. “I don’t remember it being this deep,” she said.

He didn’t say anything, but under the surface of the water he opened the pocket knife and buried the blade in his thigh. A stream of blood leaked out into the water.

Stephanie was too distracted by the bottomless pool to notice. “What happened to the pool?” she asked worry creeping in at the edge of her voice.

He paddled over to her and wrapped his arms around her. “Don’t worry,” he whispered into her ear. “We’re going to be okay.”

That was the moment that he felt the shark’s teeth sink into his leg. It pulled him down, rolling it’s great pale body, trying to rip the limb completely off. He held Stephanie as he went under, heard her scream for just a moment before be head ducked under the surface of the water.

She thrashed against him, kicking and pounding with her fists, finally managing to free herself.

He watched as she kicked to the surface and tried to pull herself out of the pool. But the ladder was gone, he’d seen to that, and before she could try to heave herself over the edge he saw a second shark swimming toward her violently kicking legs.

He was sinking faster now. He could see the circle of light shrinking slowly above him tinted red by the clouds of blood that billowed in the water. Stephanie was a thrashing silhouette, ragged strips of flesh hanging from her as now a third and then a fourth shark joined the feeding frenzy.

He wanted to call out to her, wanted to tell her to stop struggling, that this was the only way. But he was tired and numb, and it seemed as if the water around him was getting so much colder.

Now the pool had shrunk to a point of glittering light and he was astonished to see that it was not the only one; a thousand other points of light glittered overhead. Like stars, he thought.

As the last vestiges of his consciousness faded away the ravaged remains of Stephanie’s body drifted down next to him. As they sank together into the impossible deep her remaining hand brushed against his. With the last effort of Roger’s dying will his fingers curled around hers. And what little the sharks had left of them fell into the darkness, hand in hand.

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