“How long before help comes?” Andrei asked.
The two of us were sitting on a sodden mattress that was semi-submerged under the water. It wasn’t exactly a life raft, but it was buoyant enough to keep us somewhat dry. Without the mattress, we’d be in the water up to our necks. With it, the water was only up to our ribs.
I glanced at Andrei. Wet hair stuck to his face in thick, matted strips that looked like rotting seaweed. Beads of water clung to his spiny, rust-colored beard. The chattering of his teeth reminded me of the clicking of Scrabble tiles in a velvet bag.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “A few hours? They’ll probably need to wait until the sun is up.”
“But they’ll come, right?”
I nodded. “They’ll come.” I tried to sound more certain than I was.
The ship had an emergency beacon, that much I knew. When triggered, it was supposed to send a distress signal, along with GPS coordinates and a bunch of other data that could be used to help locate the damaged vessel. If it worked, help should be on the way. If it worked. In the meantime, we were on our own.
I have no idea what hit us. We were asleep when it happened. Both of us were thrown from our bunks, sliding across the suddenly slanted floor and crashing painfully into the opposite wall. I managed to stand and stumble over piles of fallen debris toward the cabin door. Before opening it, I paused to peer through the peephole into the hallway. It was a good thing I did. Otherwise, we’d be dead.
An irregular gash, maybe 15 feet long, was gouged through the hull right outside our cabin. A torrent of water the color of graphite foamed in through the breach, transforming the narrow hallway into rapids that roared angrily toward the front of the ship. My stomach cartwheeled when I saw it. The ship was nose-down. It was taking on water at an incredible rate. That could mean only one thing: we were sinking.
The descent was quick. At first, I could hear the screams of others in my crew echoing through the ship, overlapping with the sounds of rushing water and rending metal. Some were begging for help. Others seemed to be praying. Others wailed inconsolably. Then, one by one, each of them fell silent. Even after the screams ended, there was still some banging, metal on metal, as if someone was hitting a wrench against a pipe. The pattern was unmistakable: S-O-S. Soon, that, too, subsided, growing weaker and weaker until it tapered off to nothing.
Andrei and I called for help until our voices were raw. After a while, we lapsed into silence as well. There was no use wasting our breath. We were too far gone. We both sat quietly on the crooked floor, each of us lost in our thoughts, waiting for the end to come.
I mostly thought about my mother. She was an addict who used to go missing for days on end, taking off with whoever was supplying drugs to her at the time. She’d stumble home for a few days, burn a quesadilla or two in a halfhearted attempt at mothering, then disappear again.
Nighttime was the worst. I’d sit in the dark for hours, huddled on the filthy mattress in our tiny one-room apartment, waiting for her to return. I always left the door unlocked in case she forgot to bring her keys. As I grew older, her absences grew longer. Hours turned to days, and days turned into weeks. Eventually, I started locking the door again.
A few months after I last saw her, I found out she had OD’d in a hotel room in Arizona, 350 miles from home. The police found her with a needle in her arm and a baby in her belly.
I was twelve.
I guess my mind went there because it was the last time I remember feeling so scared and alone. I had the same sense of being completely powerless. There were no good options. No good outcomes. No matter what I might do, I was doomed.
The funny thing is, I was wrong about that. I turned out all right. I moved in with my grandmother, finished high school, took some community college classes, and ultimately ended up finding a life as a ship’s cook.
I knew being at sea was risky. Intellectually, that made sense. But I never felt like I was really in danger. There were some close calls, sure, some wicked storms that made me puke on my shoes, but I always felt like, ultimately, everything was under control. Until we sank, that is.
When the ship hit bottom, I was sure I was dead. The hull let out a mournful groan that sounded like a whale song. Then, there was a series of bangs, one after the other, like a ten-car pileup on the freeway. A second later, the whole room turned upside down, sending Andrei and me tumbling ass over elbows. It was like being in a snow globe thrown from an airplane.
Our cabin ended up almost entirely inverted, with the angle where the floor met the wall now steepled overhead. We were trapped in a triangular pocket of air that was maybe five feet wide and ten feet long. From our position on the floating mattress, we only had a few inches of headroom. It was tight.
Andrei’s voice broke me out of my thoughts. He sounded far away. Lost. Numb.
“Marla had her ultrasound last Tuesday,” he said absently.
“Oh, yeah? Boy or girl?”
“Girl. We’re gonna name her Ripley.”
“Ripley? Like, from Alien?”
He looked up and smiled a little. “Pretty badass, right?”
“Pretty badass,” I agreed.
I looked down through the murky brown water. I could dimly make out the shape of the cabin door far below us. An emergency beacon over the door frame flickered erratically, filling the space with an eerie glow that reminded me of a vintage horror film. Diffused through the filthy liquid, the light had a sickly yellow cast. It made the whole scene feel like a literal nightmare.
I shook my head bitterly. That door was supposed to have been watertight. It wasn’t. It had been closed and locked—it still was—but the cabin had flooded anyway. The damage to the ship must have deformed the door frame enough to compromise the seal, allowing water to rush in around the edges. Within minutes, the space filled up to our waists, then to our armpits, then to our shoulders.
And then… it stopped. I didn’t know why. Maybe the pressure equalized, somehow. Maybe there was something about the way the air was trapped, like when you put a glass into a fish tank upside down.
Or maybe something wanted to keep us alive until it was ready for us.
Suddenly, a hollow clunk resonated through the ship. The surface of the water rippled and sloshed, distorting my view of the door below. That sound was followed by another, one that my concussion-dulled brain had trouble processing.
“What was that?” Andrei asked. He looked around nervously.
I held up my hand to silence him, then placed my ear against the wall. The metal was cold and slimy against my face.
I didn’t know how long we had been underwater at that point—we had no way to measure time—but for however long it was, we hadn’t heard any noises outside of our own movement and the occasional groan of the ship’s structure as it settled into the ocean floor. But this noise was different.
Something was moving. And it was close.
I listened in silence for a few seconds. Then, I heard the sound again, louder this time. It was a dissonant squeal that reminded me of a garden rake dragging slowly across a pane of glass. I didn’t know what was making the sound, but I wasn’t taking any chances. It could be a diver or one of those underwater drones with a camera on the end. I thought maybe we were being rescued. Maybe we had been found.
I wasn’t wrong. We had been found. Just not like we hoped.
“Hey!” I shouted. The sound was explosive in the enclosed space. It was startling, even to me. I began pounding my palm against the wall. “Hey! We’re in here!”
Andrei balled up his fists and joined in the ruckus, drumming on the wall as hard as he could. “Help!” he yelled. “Hey! Hello! Can you hear us? Hello?”
We kept at it for a solid minute, making as much noise as we could. Then, we stopped and listened.
The water around us had grown still. I could see to the bottom again, all the way down to the door. As I looked, I felt my heart stall. My breathing stopped. Everything seemed to slow to a halt.
Somehow, during the short time while Andrei and I were pounding on the wall, someone—or something—had opened the door. Where once there had been the unmistakable architecture of the door’s horizontal handle and crisscrossing support struts, there was now nothing but a yawning black chasm opening into the lightless depths below.
“Andrei,” I said quietly. “The door.”
Andrei looked at me with a quizzical expression. “What?”
“The door,” I said again, more urgently this time. “It’s—”
That’s when the light went out.
I wish I could say that the bulb died. That would have been upsetting—but understandable. After all, the ship was submerged deep under the ocean. The emergency electrical system probably wasn’t designed to withstand such brutal conditions. It would have been totally reasonable for the wiring to short out or for the battery to run out of juice. But that’s not what I saw.
What I saw was a long, black appendage slithering around the top edge of the doorway. It was smooth and featureless, and so black it seemed like a tear in the fabric of reality itself. Even the ink-black depths of the water beyond the door looked pale and gray in comparison. The thing snaked along the edge of the doorway, coiled around the emergency light’s plastic housing, and it squeezed, crushing the fixture in its grip.
The light hadn’t just failed. It had been extinguished.
The resulting darkness was total. Not a single photon of light remained. It was as if I had gone completely blind.
There was a loud sloshing noise, like something moving across the surface of the water. I whipped my head around, trying to locate the source. It sounded like it came from the far end of the space, past Andrei. It was hard to tell, though—the way sound bounced off the angled ceiling made every noise seem to be coming from everywhere at once.
“What was that?” I whispered.
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I can’t see anything.”
“You heard it, though?”
“Yeah.” His voice was thick and heavy with fear. I could hear his throat click as he swallowed. “There’s something in here.”
My mind raced as I tried to picture what it could be. A shark? Maybe. But sharks didn’t have… a what? What the hell did I even see? A tentacle? No, not really. Tentacles had suckers on the bottom. What I saw was completely smooth. It was more like a worm or an eel. It didn’t move like one, though. It wasn’t slithering. Or swimming. It was… reaching. That’s the impression I got. It was reaching for the light. And then, it snuffed it out. It wasn’t an accident or a coincidence. It was intentional.
“What do we do?” Andrei asked. His breath was coming in short, panicked gasps.
“Just don’t move. Maybe it’ll go away.”
I listened intently for any indication of where the thing might be. Was it getting closer to us? Closer to me? Was it under us, swimming along the bottom? Or had it slipped silently along the surface, circling between us, winding in figure-eights as it tried to decide who to attack first?
I tried to rein in my panic. The thing could be harmless. Just a curious fish exploring the new artificial reef that had so rudely intruded on its habitat.
The water was calm. Quiet. Nothing made a sound. The only thing breaking the silence was Andrei’s labored breathing. There was no attack. No movement. No nothing.
Then, a voice spoke. It was smooth and pleasant. A woman’s voice.
“Andrei?” it said.
My eyes went wide. What the hell was that? my mind screamed. Before I could say anything, Andrei answered.
“Marla?” His voice was full of awe.
“Come home, Andrei. We’re waiting for you. Ripley and I.”
Andrei exhaled a shuddering sob. “I know. I’ll be back soon. I swear.”
“Andrei?” I said, my voice wavering on the edge of total breakdown. “That’s not Marla.”
Of course, it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. We were trapped god-knows-how-far under the ocean, dozens of miles out at sea. There was no way his pregnant wife could be there with us. And yet, I had heard the voice, too. It was as real as my own. As real as Andrei’s. It even echoed off the walls of the space a little, just like ours.
There had to be a logical explanation. Maybe it was some sort of auditory hallucination, a shared delusion manufactured by our oxygen-starved brains. Or maybe it was sensory deprivation. The darkness was so complete that our minds had started to make up sounds to fill the void in our senses.
“Where are you?” Andrei said to the not-Marla. “How are you here?”
“It doesn’t matter,” the voice replied. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
I realized suddenly that I could see again. The dark wasn’t quite as absolute as it had been a moment before. A barely perceptible luminescence was pulsing in the far corner of the room, below the surface of the water. It gave off just enough light for me to see Andrei silhouetted against the dim, blue glow.
It wasn’t just an auditory hallucination. I could see her, just under the water: her pale, porcelain skin, her eyes sparkling like blue topaz, her black hair rippling behind her like a sheet of silk in a bath. I could see the curve of her breasts and the roundness of her belly. It was Marla. It really was.
She began to drift closer to Andrei. He leaned down toward her. Reaching for her.
“Marla,” he whispered. His tone was almost reverent. His fingers dipped into the water.
“Andrei!” I hissed. “Don’t—”
Suddenly, Marla disappeared in a burst of brilliant, white-hot radiance. The searing light stabbed through my eyes, blinding me. At the same time, the air was filled with a terrifying screech. It was the same metal-on-glass squeal we had heard only minutes before. Except now, it was a thousand times louder.
I reflexively covered my ears and squeezed my eyes shut as tightly as I could. Then, I opened one eyelid just enough to see what happened next. I wish I hadn’t.
The light was emanating from a fleshy orb attached to the end of a smooth black appendage, similar to the one that had extinguished the emergency beacon over the doorway. It protruded from the center of a gaping mouth lined with rows of clear, crystalline fangs, pin-sharp and glistening. The mouth was at the front of an undulating, boneless body, midnight-black and lined with a dozen eel-like tentacles. Above the mouth was a single enormous eye the size of a volleyball. An oily black eyelid slid over it as it blinked.
The light began to strobe, turning the creature’s fluid movements into hellish snapshots of jerky, uneven motion. Its tentacles elongated, then lashed out of the water with whip-like speed, seizing Andrei and yanking him forward. The thing’s octagonal mouth flared open like the underside of an umbrella. The inside was lined with rings of barbed hooks that slanted inwards, the kind of adaptation that evolved to prevent prey from escaping as they were swallowed alive.
The last thing I saw before I closed my eyes again was Andrei being dragged into that horrifying maw, his body folding in half backward, his spine snapping like a tree branch in a summer storm.
He never made a sound.
I fully expected the creature to grab me after it was done with Andrei, but it didn’t. Not yet, anyway.
As far as I can tell, it’s gone. It’ll be back though. I’m sure of it.
In the meantime, I sit here in the darkness, alone and scared. Waiting. My eyes are open, but it doesn’t matter. It’s just as dark with them open as it is when they are closed.
Time passes. My thoughts return to my mother.
I’m twelve again. I’m sitting on the sagging mattress in our tiny one-room apartment, waiting for her to come home. It’s after midnight. The electricity is out. The room is pitch-black except for a faint blue glow flickering in the corner from the streetlight outside.
I hear her voice, just beyond the door.
“Billy,” she says. “I’m home.”
I slide off the mattress and walk across the apartment, water sloshing around me as I move. I can see her silhouetted through the screen, her black hair flowing behind her in mesmerizing waves.
I unlock the door. Open it. And step out into the brilliant, blinding light.