I stood at the edge of the sea, squinting against sun dazzles, waves rolling in to fret at the blazing white sand. I was rooted there, sucked back into my nightmare and waiting for the shadow man to stride out of the waves and drag me into the depths—
A piercing shriek. A pigtailed little native girl ran past, laughing and chasing a beach ball.
I shook my head, slapped on some sunscreen, pulled fins and mask from my carryall. I’d taken the Scuba course after receiving John’s letter and the photo of the underwater petroglyph rock.
If only I’d taken him up on his invitations to visit the islands for some diving, hadn’t kept putting it off. Maybe everything would have changed, that would have been the key random event that forked into a whole different set of possibilities. Maybe he wouldn’t have died. I should have kept watching out for him. Should have stayed “tuned in.”
The same endless loop of guilt and anguish. Wading into the water, I bent to splash my face, and sunlight caught the silver curves of my dolphin pendant. It had been John’s, one of the few possessions Dad had collected on his solitary trip to the island to bring his son’s ashes home. He hadn’t tried to reach me on the Canadian dig. At the time I’d been angry, but now I realized it had been a solo rite.
Water drops jeweled the little charm. I wished I could believe in even the possibility of the dream John had once confided. He’d figured being reborn as a dolphin would be the closest he could come to a heaven.
I dunked quickly into the water, letting it wash over me. Standing, I braced myself against the tug of the waves, adjusted the snorkel, and propped the mask up on my forehead while I struggled with the fins, balancing storklike on one leg.
“You forgot to spit in it.”
One fin on and one off, I spun around and lost my balance, sprawling into the surf. I emerged sputtering, lunging to grab an escaping fin.
The man watching me was tall and muscular, with a close-cropped coppery beard and a broad grin. “I see you found your luggage.”
It was a small island. I found myself regarding the same set of bronzed legs I’d reluctantly admired at the airport. A brief swimsuit did nothing to conceal a narrow-hipped, broad-shouldered physique that would have had Shelli Carver salivating. I grasped my dislodged mask and irritably slicked my hair back.
“I can’t imagine you don’t have something better to do.” I turned my back on him and stuck the mask firmly on my face, grasping the fin.
“You won’t see a thing if you don’t spit in your mask first.”
I pulled it off. He was sitting on the edge of the sand now, sifting a handful through his fingers. A smile tugged at his lips.
“Look, I’m a certified diver and I think I can handle snorkeling.” I deposited a glob of saliva in the mask, rubbing it around and rinsing to keep the glass from fogging. His gaze still prickled my back as I finally got the fins on my feet.
“Have fun, then. I don’t have to tell you about the urchins and fire coral.”
I straightened and met his eyes. They were clear blue and direct, lively with suppressed laughter. I found myself breaking into a grin.
He rolled to his feet with a quick, athletic movement and walked into the water, hand out. “Truce? Name’s Vic.”
I returned his clasp. “Susan.” I looked down at the mask, admitting, “Despite my shiny new certification card, I did forget to spit in it.”
The sun sparked copper glints over his tawny head as he laughed. He pointed down the beach, past some teenagers lounging on a blanket, boom-box sputtering reggae. “See that lonely pile of Scuba gear?”
I followed his finger and nodded.
“Funny thing about tourists who sign up for a morning intro dive. They go out for drinks the night before, start in on the shark stories….”
“And the hangover makes a dandy excuse come morning?”
“You got it, no-shows. I’m not a regular instructor, just helping out a buddy who works at Tropic Adventures, so it’s been a while since I took a dive for fun.” He gave me a quizzical look. “What do you say?”
I hesitated, then lifted my palms. “What’s paradise for?”
His teeth gleamed against the beard. “Come help me set up.”
He led the way up the beach. A long, ragged scar ran down the left side of his back and around to his belly, standing out pale and angry against the smoothly muscled tan. Turning beside the tanks and buoyancy-control vests, he gave me a head-to-toe appraisal as I caught up. I was starting to regret my impulse.
“Hmm. Tall, but slim. Good to see a person keeping fit. A runner? I’d say a high muscle ratio, not much of a floater. About four pounds?”
He held up a webbed belt. “How much weight do you need?”
“Oh.” I cleared my throat. “I’ve only been diving in Puget Sound. Full wetsuit, hood, and gloves. Took fifteen pounds to sink.”
“Puget Sound!” He shivered. “Tried it myself, once was enough. You’re in for a treat.” He gestured at the turquoise bay shimmering with light. “I’ll throw the extra gear in the Jeep.” He bent to hoist a tank onto his shoulder, grasping another by its valve.
I picked up extra weightbelts and followed him up the beach, lead clanking. He deposited the tanks with practiced ease, and I leaned past him to drop the belts.
He was giving me another appraisal. “That swimsuit doesn’t cover much.”
I looked down at all the pale skin revealed by my one-piece. “I don’t believe it’s meant to.”
“You can get sunburned even underwater.” He handed me a rumpled T-shirt.
“Oh. Thanks.” I pulled on the shirt, trying to read upside-down some faded printing that ended with “No Problem.”
He was zipping up a short-sleeved wetsuit top. “Wish I had a shorty to fit you. You might think about picking one up if you’re planning on diving a lot. How long are you here for?” The question was casual, but his gaze stayed on mine.
His eyes were an unusually vivid blue, striking against the deep tan. I yanked my gaze away. If there was such a thing as “animal magnetism,” this beach-hunk had it in spades, and he had to know it. But it wasn’t just the sexy packaging, it was more the kind of energy he radiated. A zest for life. Like John.
I moved hastily toward the shore.
He followed. “Not just on vacation?”
“I’m here on a research grant.”
“Figured you weren’t a tourist. After a while you get so you can place them too easy.” He opened valves, checking air pressure. “Ever used this kind of buoyancy vest? Here’s the automatic inflator. You can always go manual if you want, here’s the dump valve.” He helped me on with vest and tank.
“Here’s your pressure and depth gauges. We’ll head back at a thousand pounds, come out at four hundred to be safe. You’ve done all the drills, mask clearing, buddy breathing? Any trouble with your ears?”
“Send me in, coach.”
“Indulge me. You know the ‘don’t touch’ sign? I’ll show you some fire coral if you’ve only seen pictures. No fun getting a hit.” He handed me fins and mask and marched me into the water.
“Aren’t you going to warn me about air embolisms, the bends, nitrogen narcosis, and Great White attacks?”
“They’ve only eaten two or three people this week.”
He sank below the surface. I followed.
The earthbound world and its shadows fell away into stillness. I was floating, drifting down into the sea’s embrace, kicking effortlessly above a smooth slope of sand and shifting pattern of lights from above — flying, more than swimming, through crystal clarity. The water somehow amplified details of fish and coral, outlining shapes with a knife edge, infusing colors with their own lights. A cloud of silvery fish drifted past and broke into glittering sparks around me.
The slope plunged deeper, sea taking on a bluer tinge. I rolled over face-up and watched etched-glass air bubbles rise to the surface, dropped back farther to revel in the freedom from gravity. Arching into an open somersault, the tank only a weightless bulk, I drifted down in a slow free-fall past darting schools of fish in colors I’d seen only inside aquariums.
Vic was waiting below, beside a wrinkled brain coral. He gestured, and I followed him deeper over a drop-off. I caught a quick, echoing breath.
It was a lost alien city. A mad architect run amuck with coral. The reef had proliferated into fantastic shapes — tall arches, convoluted ribbons and passageways, pagoda-like spires plumed with delicate fringed plants in muted colors — submerged in flickering bands of surreal light. From out of its watery maze, a huge black manta ray suddenly lifted, flying on rippling batlike wings. The devilfish. It soared overhead, shadow touching my face, circling and gliding deeper, disappearing with a last beckoning dip.
I hovered, staring after it, caught in a disturbing, impossible sense of déjà vu. Seen before, but not by me. John? A dark foreboding stirred inside me.
A high-pitched sound below caught my attention. Vic guided me on, through a dappled lacework tunnel of coral, lancing lights strobing the dimness inside. Orange blossoms of a feathery creature sucked into its tube on the rock, vanishing like a mirage as I approached. We emerged into a shimmering silver cloud of fingerlings. Vic, peering under a branching coral, waved me over, pointing at a dark crevice underneath it. I squinted into it.
A mass of slippery-looking pinkish flesh, and an eye staring out at me. The shapeless blob writhed and rolled closer. A tentacle shot out at my face.
I scrambled backwards in a gush of air.
Vic’s laughter bubbled. The tentacle had unrolled to reveal the row of suction cups on an octopus arm. With an oddly human gesture, it deposited a pink spiral shell. It rolled up again, retreating into its hole.
Vic put the shell in my hand, closing my fingers around it, his hand warm in the cool sea. He gestured, indicating my vest pocket. I peeled open the velcro and sealed the shell inside.
He checked our gauges and shot off along the reef. I kicked hard, but fell behind as a school of large, yellow-tailed fish scattered behind his fins. I turned to watch the fish shoot by, the mask and awkward tank limiting my range to a blinkered forward view. I kicked faster to catch up. I was panting, sucking at the hissing regulator, the water resisting me now. Glancing down to the fanlike growths and fronds of seaweed streaming sideways, I realized I was fighting a current. I looked up. My guide’s fins had disappeared. A dark flicker, more felt than seen, moved in beside me, and I angled to the side to see.
Six feet of lean, steel-gray, hook-jawed fish had materialized beside me in a glitter of sharp teeth.
I sucked in a shocked breath, coughing on seawater.
The barracuda fixed me with a glassy stare. I edged around to face it. It disappeared in a flash. I turned back into the current and it was there, hovering inches from my face.
I gasped. The regulator mouthpiece popped out.
Coughing, choking, I flailed for the air line. Finally grabbed the mouthpiece and purged it of water. Took a deep, shaky breath, kicking in a nervous circle. The barracuda was gone. But the current had carried me backwards. I kicked forward again. Couldn’t find Vic. I was breathing hard, straining. Checking the gauge, I realized my aimless thrashing was using up the air. I’d lost my bearings, wasn’t sure which way to head back. The water was darker out here, murky.
I looked down. I’d drifted out over the drop-off, looking down into bottomless blue rippling with the shadows of devilfish wings. I was hovering over the abyss, staring into all that dark emptiness, trying to slam doors against my nightmares.
Something touched my leg.
I kicked convulsively. Fingers slid down my calf, tightened around my ankle.
*night sea, a light beam shivers over the creatures carved in stone, stirring into life. Hissing breaths, a spill of bubbles, and the icy hands of the shadow man drag John drag me into drowning depths*
Flailing against their grip, pulse pounding in my ears, I wrenched free. Rammed into a coral outcrop, salt burning scraped skin. Groping through entangling fronds, I thrashed around to ward off another attack.
It was only Vic hovering there, eyes closed as he replaced and cleared seawater from the mask I’d kicked off his face.
I shook my head, mimed a mortified apology. He dismissed it with a gesture. Checking my gauge, I saw I’d used up most of my air in my stupid panic. I held up five fingers and Vic nodded, pointing down-current.
We headed in, the current’s flow gliding us smoothly over the reef’s rise. I hung back over the last sandy slope, unwilling to emerge. Now that the surface was close, I was reluctant to relinquish weightlessness, the clean sea hush, the shallows luminous with wavering sun. I sighed and broke through into the world.
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