Updated: Nov 18
I’m pushing through the thick murk. I’m opening my mouth but no air comes in. The creature comes up from the darkness. It clamps around my chest. It’s pulling me down. The murky water is pouring into my chest… its ice is stabbing at me. The monster has me. I’m…
Eve woke up gasping for breath. A night terror.
Well, not really night. Sun’s up.
It had taken Eve well over a week to grow comfortable sleeping with the window open – to swap the soft hum of fans, sound machines, and wires with the buzz of crickets and the breath of the breeze. All that quiet was incredibly loud.
Eve’s ear had been raised on the hum of tech: personal HUDs, coolants, air purifiers, humidifiers, de-polluters long past their usefulness – beyond serving as white noise machines. Her mother called these “the heartbeat of the house.” They had been Eve’s “silence."
But lately, she hadn’t been sleeping well. She should be nagging herself about something normal, like boys or girls or tests. But Eve wasn’t concerned with grades and scores. Her parents had succeeded in drilling into her the opposite of what other parents preached. Those things don’t matter. As for crushes, there were people she wanted, but it didn’t have to be all-consuming. It was nice. Like wanting a piece of cake on your birthday. You’ll have some eventually. No rush.
Instead, it was the pressures of impending adulthood that ratcheted up. Questions about life’s purpose. That increased insecurity about what she was supposed to be doing to aid her destiny. They piled together into a general creature that would gnaw at her chest. That creature could grow, sometimes out of control, and burst through like one of those awful movies G’dah liked. The ones they used to make fifty years ago about the horrible world they were certain she’d inherit. It could wrap itself around her and squeeze until she thought she would burst.
When the creature was feeding, it would come from nowhere. No, not always nowhere. Sometimes, she would get the “quiet-louds” first. That’s what she called the paradoxical terror caused by deafening noises exploding in her ear in a room that was, in reality, very quiet. Alone, seemingly not thinking of anything at first, her breathing would become a gale-force wind, the gentle swish of a faucet, a monsoon, every small clang – a metal fork being placed on a countertop, perhaps – a clap of thunder. When the quiet-louds started, you had to ride out the storm.
They came, her psych said, as a direct result of the hum in the house. All that hum, building up to a very noisy silence, would penetrate her sensitive mind and lead to something of a terror where everything, down to her own whispering voice, sounded terrifyingly loud to her ear.
Mom called them panic attacks. She said, “They’re a gift from our ancestors. They come with our good butts.”
Whatever she called them, the quiet-louds chummed the water for the creature. They would draw it in close, and then the creature would feed.
Meanwhile, G’dah would not stop hounding her about the bags around her eyes.
When she told G’Dah that she wasn’t sleeping, he nodded in the deeply serious way he always nodded whenever she told him anything. He nodded that way when she was four, and she insisted the park slide was too hot for her legs, or when she was seven, and she had declared she didn’t want to ride a bicycle because it was “grunt work,” and so he nodded now. Despite the elevated seriousness of the fact that she wasn’t sleeping – sometimes for days at a time. His nods made her feel seen.
“Your circadian rhythm is off,” he said knowingly. G’Dah always had a reason for why something was happening, which must be where Eve’s mom had gotten the habit. But while that trait drove her crazy in her mother, it mostly felt comforting from her grandfather.
“The solution is simple. I learned it when I could not sleep, and you’ll have to learn it too. And hopefully, you’ll sidestep the years of misery I put myself through, fighting it. Of course, the world was awful then, but even now, there is plenty to keep us awake at night...”
He tended to do this. Insist the world was a very scary and damned place when he was a young man – as if his generation hadn’t thrived during the post-industrial revolution. As if being born at the dawn of modernity was a hardship.
Then he’d add, “The worst of it was we couldn’t stop a tight end for thirty straight years. We get new coaches, new players, new helmets, but still, nobody who could stop a tight end.” He was talking about the Giants. He talked about the Giants, and American football, that ancient game, about as much as he talked about his doomed youth. He’d lament that they didn’t play it anymore and, “All the same,” he’d say, “glad to have my Sundays free.”
G’Dah had prescribed her a simple three-step program for sleep.
Step one: she must move her bed beneath her window and open it wide at night. “Directly underneath.” She was to go to bed as close to when the rest of the natural world did as she could, and sleep with the window open whenever the weather wasn’t too bad.
“And on those lucky nights when you hear the rain drumming on your glass and the thunder rumbling outside the safety of your room, you’ll sleep best.”
But the most wonderful thing, he insisted, was step two.
Step two: Wake up with the sun.
“You know, like a living creature sharing Earth with the rest of us. And you’ll have an extra hour each day that is all your own because nobody, and sometimes I do mean nobody, can seem to get their asses out of bed.”
And the final step, he said, was that each day she must go out and do something with that hour that she had self-gifted. Well-rested in that morning hour, which belonged solely to her, she could “guarantee yourself that you’re alive a little each day.”
“It doesn’t matter what you choose to do. As long as it’s out of the house, preferably outside altogether, you don’t try to do anything too important, and it’s all yours.”
For the first week, she had managed only step one. Week two, she began sleeping through the night, once she actually fell asleep. But it took so long to drift off that she could never wake up in the morning and would instead draw the curtains and close the window as soon as she was conscious, stealing another hour of sleep.
But come week three, she was sleeping through the night, and waking ready for the final step. Her hour.
Even so, a little resentment stirred. Here she was, finally sleeping, and now she had to get up? Just because the sun had? Who woke up the sun? Did it have its own circadian rhythms? Did it have rules from its grandparents? But she could hear G’dah’s voice in her head, “Leave sleep wanting a little bit more. Play hard to get with it, and it’ll always take you back at the end of the day.”
To make matters worse, it was June, which meant the sun was coming up earlier and earlier.
Five a.m. Her “hour” she needed to fill was probably going to be more like two or three.
Eve swung her legs out of bed and stretched. They were protesting and tight, like everyone else’s, everywhere else, all over the world. She had given in to biking, obviously, as the tug of escaping her parents' house grew larger than her disdain for sore legs. But she still never got accustomed to the stiffness that others sadistically looked forward to each day. The price of saving the world. In the kitchen, she popped the daily multi that was supposed to ease up the lactic acid and told herself that today, wherever she was going to spend her hour, she’d take the bus.
Eve drank the tea from her thermos and made her way across the front yard into her block’s great lawn, the stretch of green that connected all the houses of Bayview Avenue. Eve adored her great lawn. She thought it was just a little better than the other ones in her town, but, in the end, she had to admit that she truly loved them all. Great lawns were one of life’s purest modern pleasures, and she couldn’t believe it had taken everyone so long to dream them up. She had seen the pictures of the concrete and tar streets that used to crisscross the town. The country. The world. Blackened veins rippling across a dying body. Streets were, of course, not gone but pruned back drastically. And “side streets” had been healed. Replaced with stretches of thin, winding public parkland with narrow, charming bike lanes running down their centers.
She settled down the main artery, the path that separated her parents’ house from the other houses across from hers and her side neighbors. She’d follow the path today until it led to the actual road, where she could grab the bus . From there, who knew. Maybe G’dah would have an idea. His house was on the way, and Eve was certain that, ever the practitioner of his own preaching, she’d see him on the front porch cataloging birds.
She made her way along the path, confident she could take it by foot without being mowed down by a half-asleep cyclist, given the early hour. Little stirred, beyond the biomimicking pollinators that buzzed from one flower to another, pedals just opening up to welcome in the morning sun. Eve wondered, not for the first time, if the buzz was necessary or if they programmed it into them for the natural comfort of the sound.
When she reached G’dah’s, he didn’t disappoint. He was in his driveway, tapping his thin clear glasses to bring up the display, latitude, longitude, weather, and breed, and marking the information with a pencil into an old moleskin as he stared at what seemed like nothing. The tech glasses were old.
Get a personal HUD, G’dah.
And of course, who else on Earth still used paper, she didn’t know. But his driveway, his driveway was what made him one of the oddest men in the county. When common sense dictated tearing it up for lawn like everyone else, especially because backyards had to be forested by law and so the front was the only chance you could have at a cultivated garden. But G’dah kept his driveway, “Come hell or highwater.”
Apparently, in the 20s, he and Yia-yia had paid “a whole year’s Christmas bonus to move this damn driveway from the back of the house to the front. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let it become lawn again.” Yia-yia usually rolled her eyes at this, but Eve thought she loved G’dah all the more for it. They were usually on the same page about things like that. Of course, driveways were also good for basketball, which he still managed to hobble through at age 75.
Nobody else besides Eve and G’dah was following their "circadian rhythm.” Ever the pragmatist, Yia-Yia had simply told Eve to “take a pill like everyone else and sleep like a baby.”
“Was wondering when I’d see you,” G’dah smiled at her, “Need your thermos topped off?” G’Dah didn’t ask about the absence of a bike.
“No thanks,” Eve said, leaning up to give his scruffy chin, which never could quite grow a beard, a kiss. “Waiting for that tree to give you the lotto?”
“There was a yellow bird in there, and I know it wasn’t a canary, but I swear I haven’t seen a yellow bird around here, and I don’t know for shit what birds are yellow that aren’t canaries. Of course, most of my life, you could barely see anything other than garbage-eating pigeons.”
Eve was pretty sure he’d put something like that exactly into his notebook. She was also pretty sure he was full of shit and had seen plenty of bluejays, sparrows, and robins in his youth. She looked it up; they’d never had to be repopulated. They’d made it the whole way, like the humans. And G’dah hadn’t exactly grown up in Brooklyn. Still, she’d have to give it to him, this particular morning was exploding with birds. Caws of Catbirds. Hums and fwaps of flapping sparrows. And chirps, trills, whistles, and slides so sweet and so long that they could only be mocking jays.
“I’m going down to the bus stop,” she told him. “Any suggestions on where I should...”
“It’s your hour,” smiled G’Dah, waving away any need for explanation, but then he got that serious look on his face and turned it into a nod, “But since it’s a June Saturday, better make it two hours.”
Thanks for the help, old man.
She left the driveway. She made her way down the path towards the street, looking back only once to see G’dah spending his hour staring at the cherry blossom in the front yard. When both of their hours were done, she’d call back in for his infamous oatmeal pancakes. Half the time, he’d abandon any attempts to make them and just take her out to the diner.
Down at the boulevard, things were a little more lively. The public bike ports were mostly full up, but a few were already empty, evidence of others having gotten an early start. Or a night that hadn't ended. Food deliveries to the restaurants were underway, one of the only times you could still find main roads populated with trucks. Delivering an entire day's worth of ground protein and potatoes to Louis’ Dockside wasn’t practical by drone. At least, not yet. But the buzz of the trucks would give way to bicycle bells and spokes whirring by the end of the hour, and they wouldn’t be heard from again until tomorrow.
Eve finished her tea in her thermos as she was arriving at the bus stop and folded the cup into her pocket. She gave it a few shakes to dry it, but it would inevitably leak a little. Government-issued, self-cleaning, and endlessly reusable? A real ocean saver? Maybe. But “leak-free” was an over-promise, and she had the tea-stained pockets to prove it.
She plopped down onto a bench, taking in the skies and the cool early summer air. The moon was still out, melting into the blue sky. That was good.
She allowed her attention to wander down, settling into the screen on the bus stop facade. It was flickering… broken. Typical. She – like most of the kids she knew – hated screens. They reminded her of school. And of her parents. And their parents. Always with their heads buried in a screen. Her Yia-yia often applauded and celebrated “your generation’s return to real human horniness,” which unendingly grossed Eve out. But it was true. A screen couldn’t touch you. It didn’t smell good (no matter how much the tech companies tried). And they were piss-poor substitutes for most of life’s other pleasures as well. Screens were tools. Watches, notebooks – she needed them… but for pleasure? Please.
On cue, the ancient bus stop monitor flicked from the timetable into an ad for a rerun movie service featuring Sci-Fi classics. Half the posters it cycled through depicted dystopian cityscapes, nightmarish futures that, according to school, they had narrowly avoided when the old guard had finally relinquished power to her parent’s generation. The rest of the posters depicted the far-flung reaches of space. Laser swords. Space stations.
Who watches that crap?
Eve looked from the poster back up to the moon. In history class, they’d learned about humankind’s obsession with going further. Pushing. Exploring. Ignoring home.
Until the Mars catastrophe.
When the terraforming failed, the biomes failed, and the food supplies ran out, it was bad enough. But then the bacteria woke up after millennia of uninterrupted slumber, and the international rescues turned back for fear of contamination, and hundreds of thousands of volunteers were abandoned to die, slowly and cruelly – and televised. So far from home. Home. People had practically started kissing the ground and the plants and sucking in the dying air around them. It was the visceral wake-up call humanity had needed in order to succumb to the truth.
There wasn’t going to be another Earth. Not one they could reach. Not soon, if ever.
They weren’t going to explore the cosmos at the push of a lever. They couldn’t defy reality or science by spreading stars into a thin layer of smeared butter on the horizon. They would have to use their genius to fix what they had right in front of their faces. Fixing up Mars into another Earth was going to be a hell of a lot harder than fixing Mother herself. She was only a little screwed in comparison to her celestial neighbors. If humanity was worried about longevity, surviving “forever,” better to start by making sure they could outlive today. Their reign on the planet was only about 0.08 of a percent of the dinosaurs’ storied run, and humankind was far more likely to be completely forgotten by history altogether than to make it even to a full percentage point.
OK, the laser swords were cool though.
The poster flickered from laser swords to something very different. Earth bound. A naked woman was swimming across an endless abyss of blue. But she wasn’t alone. Below her, a torpedo-headed leviathan, mouth agape in an upside down grin of serrated death, was rushing up to greet her. In big block letters, the title seemed to brag about its simplicity:
“Gah!” A sound made Eve leap.
It was the bus, its approach silent with its pedal-assisted engine barely making a squeak as it pulled up right next to her and opened its doors with a cheerful chime. With today’s weather being favorable, it was an open-air model, which suited Eve perfectly. The driver, his own legs as thick as Eve’s torso, eased his pedals to a stop.
“Ride or coast?”
Eve knew the stigma that came from a healthy kid her age choosing to sit and ride rather than pedal her share… but it was her hour! And a Saturday.
“Coast,” she said to the driver, looking away, hoping he’d let it slide.
“Where you getting off?”
Eve looked over at JAWS, whos teeth looked like they were gunning for her, and blurted out the first place that came to mind: “Buttlers Flat. I have the extra fare for coast.”
“Pshhh, at your size I think I can make it to the piers on my own. I won’t even need the pedal assist. The ride fair is enough.”
They both smiled. Getting to coast at the ride fair meant she’d have some spare change. Maybe she’d get a juice at the yacht club.
She settled into one of the non-pedal “coasting benches” distributed evenly among the ride seats. The bus was empty except for the driver, herself, and a man towards the back, aimlessly pedaling (not very hard, she noticed) and staring out the open frame. The driver stood up in his seat, pushed his massive trunks into his pedals, and the bus started up again.
The bus was always slower than going solo, but also so much smoother. All that frame and stability, plus the petal assist, made for a really pleasant morning ride. Maybe tomorrow, for her hour, she’d just coast the whole time if she could scrounge up the fare from Mom.
They arrived at the pier.
“Thanks. That was a great ride.”
The driver smiled. “You know what? On my days off, I always coast. Why even have a bus if you’re gonna pedal?”
“Right? Thanks! Seeya.”
Her whole day was starting to feel better now. Eve thought back to one of Yia-yia’s proverbs: “Sometimes going easy on a teenager is just about the kindest thing a person can do.”
Eve popped open her thermos, now filled with freshly squeezed cucumber and carrot juice, sweetened with cashew fruit, and chugged it down. She eyed her sloop, tied down about a hundred feet out. She’d turned down the complimentary ferry ride over. Why push her luck and ruin the vibe the bus driver had gifted her by dealing with the notoriously creepy ferryman? Plus it was nice enough out.
She looked around in the sky for a sign her favorite guide was still awake. Yes. There it was. The still-risen moon. She loved when it refused to go away despite the daylight’s protest. In these moments, it looked like a transparent ghost suspended in the cool blue early-morning air. She loved how nobody else ever seemed to notice it. Or if they did, they didn’t seem to care. It was not as it should be, but it was up there all the same; cats and dogs being friends and the moon out in the daytime… perfect.
She sealed the thermos and tucked it into her pocket, pulled her hood over her head, and yanked at the cords on her jacket.
She felt the nanothreads crawl to life and the seal form between her pants, jacket, and around her chin. A perfect drysuit. Her flip-flops she’d leave on the pier. A sailor sailed with their feet as much as with their hands. She hoped the thermos wouldn’t leak in her pocket.
Then she ran to the end of the pier and dove.
The water that came up to meet her was a hug from an old friend. It was cold, she could feel that much on her face and feet, but her body was nice and warm from her convertible suit. The sensation was more like splashing your face over the sink than being submerged. There wasn’t much chop in the water today. Eve settled into a crawl. Swimming was second nature to Eve, one of her strengths. And there was practically no danger to speak of in the harbor, with its shark fibers and patrolling sub-drones to keep the increasing numbers of Whites and Bulls at bay.
Eve swam, and her mind wandered to a day at the pier juice bar where she had talked with a sun-kissed-muscle-tattooed giant of a man. He was a commercial spear fisherman visiting Port for a wedding, hoping to get in a morning swim. He was pointedly asking the barkeep about the fiber netting of the harbor. Eve’s fear of sharks won out over her fear of conversation, and she found herself joining the discussion. She assured him that the shark nets were well-kept and very effective, and she knew this because without them she didn’t know if she would be able to get in the water at all. Eve had been well rewarded for her faith in this stranger, who had been neither dismissive nor condescending. Instead, he’d shared that while he’d quite enjoyed swimming in shark-infested waters in the Caribbean, the North Atlantic was another story.
“In the reef, off Caye Caulker, you see big fish from a mile away. You see they’re calm. Lazy. Just animals, lolling up to you, passing underneath, and you realize that you’re no more appetizing to them than a mouse is to you. But, in the northern Atlantic, it’s just murk. You can’t see the tip of your schnoz on your face. In water like that, you’re right to be terrified of sharks. Who knows what’s lurking? Who knows if it’s hungry?”
Out here… there are monsters.
As she swam on, with the darkness of the water surrounding her, her mind flicked to the poster from the bus stop. The big red block letters. The torpedo-headed monster coming for the helpless exposed woman.
And, suddenly, she could feel it coming. Her own monster, which lived in the depths of her soul, was nibbling on her chest. Just a dull ache, but present. She tried to keep her thought pattern on her pleasant morning with each stroke and breath.
The morning air.
The bus driver.
The free juice.
The cool of the water.
The spear fisherman, his tattoos.
Her own buoyancy from the salt surrounding her.
The joy of using her muscles and feeling her legs loosen up.
When she reached the boat, she pulled herself aboard a little faster than she needed to, glad to put some fiberglass and wood between herself and the deep feeling. Eve pulled the hood down, and her thermos out of her pocket, glad the seal had held. She felt the gnawing monster in her chest subside. She sipped, and took in her sloop. Sails. Rope. Pulls. She was home.
The sloop was pulling at the breeze, being sucked across the bay. Eve settled back against the helm and looked for the moon, hoping it was still out. She lined it up in the small gap between the mast and the rippling sail. It was silly, really, a mark on land was much more practical. But it made her feel like an ancient mariner charting the seas via the cosmos.
It was peaceful on the boat; the music of the rippling sail, the gentle rhythm of the clanging rigging, and the gently groaning wood lulling her into another state.
This meditation, this flow, was why Eve had woken up on a Sunday at five in the morning. She needed her own private hour to find this. Sedation by concentration. The focus gave her time to melt away without pesky worry, concern, anxiety. She clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth in response to the clanking of the main sail against the mast. She kept her mind on her boat, and it rewarded her with peace.
And in that calm her thoughts drifted, this time to the future. She would finish school. Then choose a trade path, or go to college. Either way, it would end with… work. But, what for? Not for Dad. Dad had never wanted to work. It had earned him the label of lazy.
Perhaps she could work at the juice bar this summer and then just stay there. Work on the boats.
Forget college. Sail. Read books.
She was too busy thinking to notice the sound growing.
What Mum would call the quiet-louds, and her therapist called a panic attack. The clicking, clanging, whipping, and fizzing which had started out as almost imperceptible individuals tuning their instruments were becoming a thundering symphony. By the time she realized what was happening, the monster had reared up inside her.
Oh, no no no, not here, not now.
She had done everything she’d been told. She had gone to bed early and woken with the natural sun. She had set aside time for herself. She had stopped eating bread! Everything she was supposed to! The last thing she had wanted was for the quiet-louds to rear up here and destroy her favorite thing in the world.
But her breath was so loud. So deafeningly loud. Roaring louder than the ocean, the wind, the sails. And that clink she kept hearing...
Like an ancient hammer upon a forge, it wasn’t the gentle rattle of chains anymore but booms. The water against the boat, her breath, her breath thundering, the world, thundering. Everything banging, screaming, inside her skull.
It made it hard to breathe. She gasped for air, and the gasps were hurricanes, each breath louder, which made the whole experience worse. Pressure was building in her chest.
“Hey, Atlas.” She gulped air in. “Hey, Atlas!” A gentle chime. Then: “Yes, Eve?” The minuscule wearable in her ear responded to her.
“Vitals check.” Her voice sounded odd, as if it were coming from somebody else.
“Running analysis, please be still.”
Clang. Clang. Clang!
She grabbed the helm and tried to hold the boat steady.
Tried to hold her breath steady.
And then the monster… the monster… arrived.
It was feeding on her, feasting on her, stabbing her. She would burst. She let go of the boat entirely and grasped at her chest, pulling at the squeezing pressure as if she could reverse it. She was gasping for breath. She didn’t know how, or know why, but she knew for sure that out here, far from her home and in the middle of her peaceful hour she was dying, she was going to die, her heart was about to explode, and she would never see G’dah again, she would never sail again…
“Vitals are perfect, Eve. Heart rate is a little fast but nothing to be concerned with. Perhaps a breathing exercise?”
“Are you experiencing distress? Would you like me to call an ambulance?”
“We’re in the middle of the bay, Atlas!”
“Perhaps a breathing exercise?”
She was fine. She was fine. She was fine.
Go away monster. You can’t have sailing. You can’t have this hour.
Clang! Clang. Clang.
That was it. Focus.
Focus on the helm scraping at her hand.
The breeze on her face.
The gray lump ahead in the water.
The gray lump ahead in the water?
She pulled at the helm, hard, yanking the boat to avoid whatever it was. A rock? But rocks don’t move.
The back of a whale. The first she’d ever seen outside a screen. But of course, if the sharks had recovered, the whales must be back, too.
She didn’t want to hit it. She pulled hard with both hands into a gybe before she knew what she was doing, passing the stern through the wind and flipping the sail. She misgaged, and tried to stop midway.
And instantly regretted it.
The abrupt change of direction slapped at the sail, and the boat lurched and heaved as if it were about to vomit up its innards. It took her a moment to regain control. She could see that there had been no need to swerve. The whale had effortlessly disappeared before her boat had even come close.
But the sloop didn’t have anywhere near the grace of the whale, and it was not impressed with what turned out to be an unannounced slam gybe. The sloop lifted its nose into the air and flopped into the churn of the whale’s wake. The boat rose up again, feeling almost like it was going to take flight, and then slammed back down hard onto the sea, knocking Eve over.
There was suddenly way too much chop. Eve had passed out of the protected bay without realizing it, and the wind out in the sound was fiercer than in the harbor. But, that didn’t account for the uncontrollable foam and chop, the surface of the sound upturned beyond what the weather created. The boat was slapping against the glassy horizon and the wind was picking up. She didn’t have enough give, she knew. She needed to move quickly or else the boom, suddenly out 90 degrees in the wind, was going to send the sloop into a death roll.
The sail began to swing back and forth in uncontrollable gybes as the boat rocked back and forth, back and forth.
Eve remembered her instructor at sailing camp describing a death roll, heard her voice in her head. “Sheet in the main!” Keep the top of the sail from going too far forward. She tried to forget what they said would happen if you failed. She screamed at the monster in her chest, determined to take all that adrenaline and focus it on the task at hand. “If you’re going to be here, make yourself useful!”
Chime. “I don’t understand”
“Not you, Atlas!”
She grabbed at the sheet, ready to trim quickly, determined to prevent a roll.
But it was too late. A gust of wind yanked the sheet out of her hand, the mast and sails groaned, and the boat swung to the side.
It was fast but took forever. A million moments slowly played out in real-time. A lifetime per nanosecond. It was as if she was holding the sloop steady while the rest of the world flipped upside down. She was a fixed point and the sky was capsizing.
And she could see, across the bay, too many to count. Lump after lump after lump.
She guessed they were gray whales, but really it was a guess. She was being flipped upside down, after all.
The last thing she heard as she smashed into the water was a chime of protest from Atlas, and then her life preserver exploded into emergency inflation from within her convertible drysuit.
She was only out for a moment. The water lapping her face saw to that.
Groaning, groggy, but remembering. “Atlas, vitals.”
Chime. “I have been routinely monitoring your vitals since activating your automatic life preserver. They are holding steady, though your heart rate remains high. Body temperature below normal…”
A sudden lurch in her stomach. Eve vomited up seawater.
“And an ingestion of excess saline.”
“Atlas, call for help.”
Chime. “Network not found.”
She gulped. She tried to stay calm. She tried again. “Atlas, call for help.”
Chime. “Network not found.”
Chime. “Body temperature dipping. I recommend moving to dry land.”
Once more. “Atlas, Call. For. Help.”
Chime. “Network not found. Please relocate.”
Then: “… battery preserve.” Tone.
She bobbed up and down in the water, trying not to panic. She couldn’t see any whales, but, having lost the vantage of her boat, she could barely see the Manhattan skyline past the swells. They must be well aware she was there. Her crash had been loud. They had probably scattered.
Dived. Beneath her. The poster…
That’s not helping.
She had to think of something else. They weren’t sharks. They were whales.
There was a drawing she’d once seen during a school trip to the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum. In it, the sound was covered, from one corner of the paper to the other, with lumpy hills. But the hills were whales. The caption underneath had explained:
“In the early days of whaling, the hunters never even had to leave the sight of the land. But the whales soon learned.”
Eve tried not to remember the surrounding paintings. The bloody, frothy water, and teeth, and angry whales smashing boats to pieces…
She took some deep breaths. And then she heard the clicks.
Oh, thank the all-being. It was the hum of a motorboat. All she needed to do was wave it down before it ran her over. A swell was coming in her direction and she swam toward it to try and take advantage of the quick rise it would provide her, and the chance to scan the horizon.
Click. Click. Click. Cliiiiiickckckckckckck!
The evolution of sound stopped her dead.
Not a motor boat.
The swell lifted her up. Eve saw it coming towards her.
“Atlas power on. Atlas, call for help.”
Chime. “Interference. Network not fou…”
There was a fizzing and the Atlas in her ear squealed painfully. The clicking, in response, intensified.
Click. Click. Click snap. Snap snap. Click!
Eve’s head was splitting.
“Atlas, power off!”
She grabbed at the earpiece and flung it from her body.
Well, that was dumb.
She swam towards where the earpiece hit the water, and ducked under to try to grab it.
And she saw them.
Eve had thought that she wouldn’t see more than a foot in front of her in the murk, but she was able to penetrate far further than that once there was something to actually see. Eve could make out a head as it pierced the darkness about fifty yards down. A flat blackish, grayish slab, extended back into the depths to reveal a body that was, in actuality, all head.
These weren’t Grays or Humpbacks or any other kind of gentle giant. They were Sperm Whales. Whales with teeth. The biggest predators on Earth. She hoped she was far enough away, but the monster – twice the size of the bus she’d ridden that morning – powered to the surface in seconds. The fluke breached out of the water behind its head, and no sooner was it in her personal space than it dove.
Part pulled by the tug of its wake, part voluntary action, unable to stomach the terror of ignoring its presence beneath her, she took a deep breath and dipped her head below the surface to watch it dive, ignoring the sting of the salt.
There was enough light to contrast the monster’s silhouette against the bottomless deep. It stopped on a dime, shifting from speeding torpedo to ghost ship adrift with no effort at all.
It spun its massive belly up at her and showered her with clicks.
Eve could feel the clicks all around her now, penetrating, deep, forceful. It was like the quiet-louds, only there wasn’t anything quiet about it at all. They were explosions. And somehow, she knew that although she was shaking so hard she might turn to goo, this was the equivalent of a gentle brush. She was sure that if the whale had wanted to, it could crush her with its voice.
It didn’t though. The sound wasn’t even close to violent. It was, however, all-encompassing. The sounds pummeled her, the clicks penetrating her skin, her guts, her brain, her bones… her heart. The whale was getting a good, hard, look. She didn’t need Atlas to tell her that her heart was pounding. But she was glad it was. She was so glad to be so alive, and she wanted her heart to betray her to the beast, to give her away as another living creature, to tell the whale everything about her. That she was alive, she was no threat to it… and that she probably wouldn’t taste good.
As the clicks pummeled her, she felt she had to do something. Say something. She forced her tongue from its place glued to the roof of her mouth. It felt like deadlifting a truck.
Eve gave three weak click-click-clicks.
She couldn’t hear if she had made any sound over the sonic boom all around her. But perhaps she had, and perhaps the whale had heard it because the clicking stopped. They floated together for what felt like a hundred lifetimes, looking at each other.
Then they hit her. In succession. Massive and body shaking, but somehow also measured and gentle.
And then the whale turned sideways, flicked its tail, and disappeared.
Eve surfaced, gasped for air, desperate to fill her lungs without taking in water. She had actually forgotten for a moment how screwed she was. Through gasps, she began to laugh. Sort of a little puff at first, but it built until she was cackling, belly laughing, rolling, and bobbing in her life vest with each guffaw. To an outside observer, she must look insane. But Eve had never felt so exhilarated, so scared, or so happy. She had slow-danced with a deep sea monster, and they had sung together.
The clicking had retreated into the general hum she had noticed when she first fell into the water. It was still all around her, but not nearly the intense penetration she had just experienced. By comparison, it almost seemed quiet.
Now that she had tuned into their frequency, Eve could not just hear but also see the whales all around her. What she had thought was chop earlier was the coming and going of hundreds, maybe thousands, of bodies. She didn’t feel like she had invaded their territory, or them hers, but like they were together, sharing something.
Still, she was afraid. There was no doubt about that. She was terrified. But there was a strange sense of calmness. If she died out here, it would be a spectacular death. She’d be truly alive before it happened.
And if she did survive, life was going to be different. If she wasn’t panicking it now, she couldn’t imagine when she would. Could she, never again? Maybe that was asking too much. But it felt like the gnawing monster inside her had been liquified by the clicks. Vibrated to death. She knew in her heart it would not be coming back. And that made her want to survive all the more.
She had to find her boat.
Click. Click! Click!!
It was back. The same whale. How she knew, she couldn’t say. And there was another whale with it. Eve felt like she could sense the difference in the sensation from the clicks. She dipped her head below the surface to look.
The sun was really working hard now, so she could see a decent range of blue-green around her. There, just on the edge of the light, was the large sperm whale. And there, emerging out of the shadows…
Was her baby. Or, child? Calf? Who could tell with whales? Whatever its age, the kid-whale was certainly smaller, perhaps the size of Eve’s sloop. And it was considerably bolder and more curious than its mother. Momma sent a few bursts of warning clicks, perhaps at the baby, or perhaps at Eve, or more likely at them both, but the curious child couldn’t be restrained.
Eve must have passed some kind of test because the mother didn’t interfere as the baby propelled itself up a foot or so below the surface, its huge flat nose the size of a cyclecab, within an arm’s reach.
Eve, breathless though she was, now had to breathe for real. The instinct to survive outweighed her wonderment. She slowly, so as not to alarm it, picked her head up and gasped for air, then slipped her face back under.
The kid-whale seemed to consider her for a moment. Then it sent an excited volley of clicks, surfaced, slipped next to her, and sent a ten-foot column of mist into the air.
Eve resurfaced, and laughed out loud.
“Yes! Just like me! Yes!”
Suddenly, the calf went from still to thrashing its tail, left to right, not how a whale should move its tail but…
Like a shark, Eve thought as the churning water shoved her backwards. No. Not like a shark. Like playing.
The whale stared at her. Eve, unsure what else to do, wiggled her legs back and forth in a similar
The child dove back under, clicking gleefully.
Eve ducked her head back under, and on instinct, deflated her life vest. As it pushed the air out, the child and its mother both curiously showered her with a new range of clicks, as though impressed by this trick.
Then they released some bubbles of their own, showing her they could do it, too.
She actually laughed underwater, forcing her to kick up again for air. She took a big gulp, and dove down. After about ten feet, she broke through the tug of the water’s surface, and her body floated suspended. She was in another world now. In the whale’s world.
The mother and kid-whale had done something, and it disoriented her at first. She thought perhaps that she’d dived too deep and somehow ended up beneath them. But that wasn’t the case at all. The surface was still right where it should be, a few kicks above her.
Rather, the whales had turned themselves upright, so that they were now floating like buoys under the sea, bobbing up and down, suspended. Standing vertically, as if to officially welcome her.
And they weren’t alone. All around, she noticed the other whales, at least a half dozen, appearing out of the deep, from the sides, and surrounding her. She was at the center of a circle of living monoliths.
She needed to breathe again, but she was too terrified to kick to the surface. Not afraid of the whales, but of missing whatever they were doing.
The child, as if sensing this, broke formation and gently floated towards her, then past her, as if bidding her to follow it up. Eve did, and she breathed there, and then returned alongside it to the center of the circle where the others were waiting, undisturbed.
Then, the ritual began.
The clicks and hums, though from all sides, and far more numerous than before, were somehow more gentle. If her first encounter had been an interrogation, this was prayer.
The sound engulfed her, passing over and through and around her like the most loving hug she’d ever received. It was not like her parents’ hugs. Those could be gentle, but still fierce with a possessive love. These were more like the way she must have been held as a baby. Full of awe and loving fragility.
It couldn’t have lasted more than a minute or two, but it felt like it went on much longer, and no time at all. And when it ended, Eve was part of the pod. She had a family on land and a family in the sea.
Eve desperately needed air now. She could feel the spasms in her chest pushing her to the surface. But she also wanted to swim with her new family as they broke formation and disappeared, away, into the deep. She might have allowed herself to sink down with them, and drift off forever, blissfully happy, if one of the whales had not suddenly woken her with one last powerful click!
She realized she had sunk down another twenty feet, and needed to get back up. A slight flurry of panic bubbled in her, and she kicked, probably harder than she should have, expending what little oxygen she had left far too quickly. She was starting to feel a pounding in her head, a scream in her chest, and spotting of black at the edges of her vision when she broke the surface gasping for air.
Her lungs felt like they were trying to take in so much air that they’d never need more again. Her eyes stung in the harsh light, straining from the sting of the salt. Her brain desperately tried to burn the recent encounter into her memory. A moment she wanted to never forget.
She gulped air, dove again, and kicked a few feet, but they were gone. All of them. Even the kid-whale.
Back at the surface Eve paddled and thought. She couldn’t re-inflate her life vest from inside the water, now that the emergency compressed air had been exhausted. She would run out of energy soon.
She also felt desperately sad, which was extra painful following the exhilarating happiness she had just been bathed in moments before. She wished she could say goodbye and cursed her lungs for not being able to hang on a few moments longer.
And then she saw the spray.
About two hundred feet away, a ten-foot spout of water shot up into the sky. How she knew it was the child at that moment she couldn’t say, but it was confirmed moments later when it was joined by a much taller spray, belonging to a larger, more adult whale.
And as her eyes traveled down the spray to the horizon, she saw a flash of red and white.
It was the hull of her sloop.
In her mind, after the boat was righted, she imagined that the kid-whale had swum up from the deep to see her off, its mother close behind. It had tilted its massive head upright at the surface, giving her a chance to reach down and touch its nose. Perhaps it turned on its side to look her in the eye. A cherished moment they would share forever.
She formulated this vision as she limped back into the bay, then radioed for assistance; had endured the tow ride from the creepy ferryman who treated her like a damsel in distress. She ran it over and over in her mind as she dragged her body step by step from the pier back to the great lawn of Bayview Avenue, having spent all of her return fare on the aforementioned juice (a real teenager move, she had to admit), all the way to her grandparents' front porch. She held the image of the goodbye in her mind as they held her tight, their anger at her hours of absence abated the moment she burst into tears. They had showered her with clicks on the porch swing while she cried tears of joy and tears of sadness and above all, tears of exhaustion. That night she would be asleep before her head hit the pillow.
Eve’s farewell with the kid-whale hadn’t happened. By the time the sloop was righted, not only were her whales gone, but all the whales had moved along.
She could see the chop she had first mistaken for stormy seas far off in the distance, near the spires of Manhattan with its old massive carbon-sink towers, unnecessary now and converted into public parks. She figured there would be plenty of city kids getting a thrilling sight from the east side piers today. But nobody would get the view hers had been.
There had been no poetic end to the magic that had enfolded her. Whales don’t say “have a nice day” when they leave your life forever. They just are… and then they aren’t.
So, Eve had been left alone in the relative quiet.
She found peace in the sound.
Jim Fagan is a television writer (WGAeast), director, and producer who lives on the Long Island Sound with his wife and three beautiful children. This is his first published work of short fiction. His website is Jim-Fagan.com .
Artwork by Karolina Uskakovych. Karolina is a designer, artist, and filmmaker from Kyiv, Ukraine. She is a co-founder of the Uzvar_Collective and Art Director for the magazine Anthroposphere: The Oxford Climate Review. She is also artist-in-residence at Re(Grounding) programme as well as the Digital Ecologies research group. Her current research explores traditional ecological knowledge in relation to gardening in Ukraine.