The captain climbed down from his perch atop the cabin. "Yar, that should bring 'em in," he said, gesturing emphatically with a hand curved to resemble a hook. "If it don't, I be a durned fool." The chum spread across the tranquil blue waters, slipping slowly away from the boat like a stain. Of course it would bring the sharks—we had already spotted three or four, closer to shore, and sharks were a "guarantee" on this tour. Captain Starkey had promised us first thing this morning: "You'll see sharks, me buckos, or you can take me other eye from its socket."
We "buckos" had no choice but to believe him. Allegedly, Captain Starkey lost his eye in a shark attack (this turned out, in fact, to be true). He'd been running his tour for fifteen years, and it had come highly recommended by my aunt and uncle, who'd visited the Bahamas the previous year. In fact, it was partly on their dime that Pete and I were there. "College boys need to spread their wings and fly a little," Uncle Henry had convinced my parents. "The boy's never had a Spring Break. Let him take one."
Pete's family was rich, so it took little convincing to talk him into a trip. It was even easy to convince him to avoid the typical hotspots—no party beaches, no crowded shore-front nightlife. Some drinking, of course—we were twenty-one, after all; drinking was required—but I really wanted to see the local spots, taste the indigenous cuisine. Pete was on board; he'd been to Panama City, he'd done all of that already, and he was a sociology major, so it made sense for him to try new things. And we both loved Jaws, so the shark tour was a definite must.
There were five of us on the boat, besides Captain Starkey and his first mate, Jimbo: me; Pete; a man, woman, and their boy; and a girl, probably eighteen or nineteen, who was oddly alone. I'd noticed her right away, which of course meant Pete had seen her before we'd even boarded the boat. He had barely looked away from her since. She was pretty—gorgeous in fact, though that may have just been the Caribbean sun. It has a way of finding everyone's positive attributes. I'd never been too happy about the way I looked—couldn't get a six-pack for the life of me, retained a little weight in my thighs and stomach and chin—but even I had to admit that, down here in the daytime, I looked pretty damn good.
Pete looked like a minor deity. He'd always been a handsome guy; even his exes, who unanimously hated him, had to admit that. His looks got him attention, and his charm got him a little further, but his short temper usually kept things from lasting too long. Which was all right by Pete, of course—he wasn't the relationship type. Being faithful took too much effort for him. He preferred one night stands, girls he only knew by their first name. He considered himself something of a playboy, and his money and looks enabled him to be one.
So Pete noticed the girl. But she didn't seem to notice him, which meant nothing to Pete. It was merely a matter of time, so I just waited and took in the beauty of the landscape.
I'd never seen anything like it. There are no oceans in Illinois. There aren't even any major bodies of water, unless you count Lake Michigan, and I stayed as far away from Chicago as I could. The sun doesn't shine endlessly; the skies are rarely cloudless. Not that the weather in the Bahamas was perfect; it wasn't like a postcard, nor had I expected it to be. But it was almost like that, the closest I would ever get to it.
The chum, leeching outward into the ocean, seemed to contradict all that. Blood, especially when there are bits of guts mixed up in it, is not beautiful. It belongs on the inside. It was a blight on this mid-morning perfection. But it would bring the sharks, en masse, and I'd been dreaming of seeing that for years. So I forced myself to keep my eyes upward for now. When the fish came, then I could look down again.
The mother who was with us apparently had similar thoughts. She said, overtly, to her husband, "Maybe we shouldn't have brought James along. This is rather brutal, don't you think?"
The father rolled his eyes—he wore shades, but he was the kind of man who put his whole body into acts of annoyance. The boy, maybe eleven or twelve, was young enough to be indignant, but old enough to pretend not to have overheard. He leaned against the side of the boat, hanging over, almost as though he wanted a shark to leap up and grab him.
"Aye, missus, 'tis not a pretty sight," the captain said. "But what's comin'—now that is a thing of beauty."
Pete and I were about half the boat length away from the family. The girl was at the far end. The bow, I told myself. The family was at the stern, the girl was at the bow, and Pete and I were...mid-ship?
"It just seems so violent," the woman said again, and shook her head in finality.
"I guess it is kind of bloody," Pete said. I wondered why he was talking so loudly, and I was about to respond, until I realized he was making his move. I closed my mouth and decided to watch from the corner of my eye.
The girl looked up. Yes, beautiful. My heart skipped. I had a so-so girlfriend back home, or at least a girl I had no desire to cheat on, but this girl definitely inspired thoughts of changing the older model in for a new one. Exactly the type Pete always went for, really.
"It's kind of morbid when you think about it," Pete continued, this time looking directly at the girl.
For a moment, I thought she wasn't going to answer. Maybe it was how I wasn't looking directly at her, only watching from an angle, but I seemed to see something shift in her face. Annoyance? Disgust? I expected her to turn away.
She did, eventually, but not before saying, "They have to feed. It's the only way to bring them."
Pete wasn't put off. He stepped closer—not threateningly close, but definitely closer than she clearly wanted him to be. "Have you ever seen sharks swarm before? It's amazing. There's so many—"
"It's called a feeding frenzy," the girl said. "And yes I have."
"Then you know what I mean. So, do you watch sharks for fun?"
She scoffed, but didn't look any less beautiful doing it. "I'm a marine biology major."
"Wow." Pete seemed genuinely interested; I figured he wasn't faking that part of it. Neither of us had ever met a marine biology major. Or even knew there was such a thing.
"Scott and I are pre-med at the University of Illinois," Pete said. "We're down here to take a break from all the studying. Every night, studying. It's insane."
The girl just nodded and watched the waters.
From the stern, the boy asked, "Where are the sharks?"
His mother shushed him, but Captain Starkey laughed. "They be here soon, me lad. Before long these waters will be brimming with shark meat. Captain Starkey never disappoints, do I, Jimbo?"
"Nah, captain," came the response from the cabin.
"Any sharks yet, Jimbo?"
"Nah, captain. Don't see no sharks nowheres yet."
As an aside to the boy—cupping his hand dramatically around his beard—the captain said, "Me believe Jimbo to be half-blind at times. Never fear, lad: the sharks are there."
"They are," the girl said quietly, to herself.
Pete leaned out over the side. "Did you see one? Man, I can't wait."
"Once you've seen one feeding frenzy, you've seen them all."
Pete only hesitated for a moment. "It's still exciting. Very...Scott, what's the word I want?"
"Primal," I said. "It's very primal."
The girl glanced at Pete, then at me. I met her eyes. She looked at me differently than she looked at Pete. Not in a romantic way—she wanted to be alone, she wanted both of us gone—but with some sort of amusement. I couldn't tell if that was a compliment or not.
"Ah see a fin," Jimbo said calmly. I glanced up at him. It was a very calculated voice, honed just right from years of practice. Calm, reassured: I've done this before. But also with a tinge of excitement: This is something new for all of you, so pay attention.
"A fin!" the captain said. "Where be yer fin, Jimbo?"
The first mate pointed. "There, captain."
We all looked. The fin must have dipped beneath the water, but we stared carefully. After a minute, it reappeared. Along with another. And another.
"Caribbean reef sharks," the girl said. "They're the most common type around here."
Pete glanced at her. "You can tell?"
She didn't answer.
"Here they come," Captain Starkey said. "Now remember, lads and lasses, these be wild animals with very sharp teeth. They have also, yar, feasted on human blood before. So take heed, and make sure ye keep all parts of yer body within the boat at all times. Otherwise, mateys, ye be walkin' the plank."
The sharks gathered slowly. I held my breath, waiting for the explosion of violence that I'd seen on the Discovery Channel. Even Pete was momentarily distracted.
"When they feed like this," the girl said, "they're out of control."
I looked at her. It didn't surprise me that she was talking to herself; if this was her field of study, naturally she'd be interested. But it was her voice that caught my attention—almost reverent, quiet and controlled, but with a sense of awe lurking just beneath the surface.
"I have a confession to make," Pete said. "This is my first...feeding frenzy, is that what you called it? Well, this is my first. I was just trying to impress you earlier. 'Course, now I'm the one impressed. I'm glad that, for my first time, I'm standing next to someone so experienced." He stuck out his hand. "I'm Pete."
The girl didn't even glance at him.
"And that's my friend Scott."
Still, the girl didn't react.
Pete looked at me and made an obscene gesture with his hand. I just nodded and turned back to the sharks. A different show had begun now, one I hadn't watched before.
The waters were slowly beginning to roil, mainly towards the stern end of the boat. I could've sauntered over there, but I liked having a few feet between myself and the family. It made it seem as though I were more isolated, witnessing this by myself and not in the company of strangers. That made it more dangerous: just a few feet separated me from a swarming pack of apex predators. My stomach trembled at the thought.
"It is times like this," Captain Starkey intoned, "that I am always reminded how small I am in the eyes of the Lord. But one of these fish is more powerful than any man e'er born."
"They grow up to ten feet," the girl said. "They can weigh a hundred and fifty pounds. They like to lay in wait at the bottom of the reefs, until their prey comes to them."
"Fascinating," Pete said. "So how come they're all up here now?"
The churning sea was a gruesome sight, but it was hard to look away. This was real life; this wasn't being filtered through the lens of a professional photographer and some naturalist with an accent. If I wanted, I could reach out and brush my fingers through the water. Perhaps, beneath the filmy red layer of chum, there was a shark, and I could touch its rough skin, feel its cold, wet power.
"They're violent," Pete said. "And they're animals. I mean, yeah, they're pretty cool. But, come on, they're just fish."
The girl ignored him. From the back of the boat, the mother was making soft choking sounds. Her husband seemed oblivious, and the boy's rapt attention was focused solely on the ocean. Captain Starkey put his hand on the woman's back and said, "My dear missus, perhaps ye be best to sit down over here." He put her in a chair square in the center of the boat. She could still hear the sounds—splashing, thrashing, the occasional brush of skin against skin, like sandpaper—so I'm not sure how much the relocation helped.
"I don't get it," Pete said to me. "Yeah, this is cool. But it's like she cares more about the fish than about the people here."
"Easy," I said, keeping my voice low so hopefully the girl wouldn't hear. "Forget it."
"Yeah," he said, and we watched the sharks for a while. More of them came. I wondered if there were any of those ten-footers around. I tried to think of these quick, feisty beasts lying patiently in wait, but I couldn't. They were too kinetic, furtive, almost as though someone had tossed an electrical wire into the water. Chaos. It was like watching chaos unfold.
"Goddammit," Pete said.
I knew that tone, so I slid closer to him. "Easy, man. Just enjoy this. Forget it."
"Fuck that." He turned to the girl. "You could at least tell me your name, you know. I told you mine. It's polite."
The girl looked at him longer this time, as though trying to study him with the same intensity she did the sharks. She couldn't, though, and her gaze drifted away. It'd been a long time since I'd seen Pete ignored so blatantly; in fact, the more I thought about it, I realized I'd never seen it. He was rich and handsome; even other guys couldn't ignore that.
"Listen," Pete said, his voice rising. "I'm being nice here, okay? How about Candice? You look like a Candice. Is that your name?"
"Hey," I said, and tugged lightly at his shirt. "Let's go see the action closer up, huh? There's more sharks over there."
"Hey, you." Pete reached out and poked the girl's arm. "Come on. Answer me."
"They aren't just fish," she said. "They're ancient. They outlived the dinosaurs. They're beautiful."
"Yeah, well, you ain't. Not anymore."
"Pete," I said. "Hey, man."
Pete poked her again. "You know what you are, huh? You're crazy. You're lookin' at those fish like you want to sleep with them. That it? You want to sleep with those fish?"
I glanced over my shoulder. The boy was still watching the sharks, and the mother was openly ignoring us, but we had the father's attention. Captain Starkey was watching us from the corner of his eye, if that was even possible. Up in the cabin, Jimbo kept his eyes on the sharks, making sure they didn't get out of hand.
I grabbed Pete's shoulder. "Let's go, man. You're makin' a scene here. Let's just—"
"Bitch." Pete poked the girl harder; it was more a shove. "You pay attention to me, you hear? Tell me your goddamn name."
The girl looked at him again, and it wasn't surprise on her face, and it wasn't fear. It was...interest. Finally. Genuine curiosity. And part of me understood. In this moment, Pete was dangerous. Not as dangerous as the sharks, maybe, but still a threat. Something worth paying attention to. Something worth studying.
"There," Pete said, and he raised his hand. I don't know what his intentions were; I don't know if he meant to strike her, or was signaling victory, or was merely making a gesture of exasperation. I don't know. But I stepped forward, arm outstretched, to grab his shoulder. I think.
Something must have happened in the water. Maybe one of the sharks wasn't getting enough food, or maybe several of them went after the same bit and got into a fight. I felt the wood beneath my feet shake, knew the vibrations for what they meant even before the boat gave a lurch to the right. Starboard. The boat tipped starboard.
I collided with Pete. First my hand hit his shoulder, and then my body followed—momentum, painful and unavoidable. Pete started to turn his head towards me, saying something—I'm fine, dammit!—his eyes narrowing in annoyance, then widening in surprise, and then going blank as the realization of what was happening swept over him. All in the space of a nanosecond. One moment that only became broken down later, when I thought back on it, when I tried to understand it.
He went in. The railing of the boat caught him at the waist, he bent over, and he went in.
The boat righted itself. I found myself leaning against the railing, staring at the spot where Pete had disappeared. Dimly, from somewhere, I heard a woman screaming. It wasn't the girl, though. She was looking at me intensely, much like she'd just been watching Pete. Except I think there may have been a smile hidden on her face.
"Christ!" Captain Starkey yelled. "Nick, man overboard!"
Footsteps. Huffing breath. Someone brushed past me, almost knocking me down. Jimbo. He dove into the water, no hesitation, no concern for the sharks. Straight in. Then someone else was beside me, shoving me out of the way. The captain. "Jesus, kid," he said. "Dear sweet Jesus."
Jimbo probably reappeared in a couple of seconds. It felt longer. Minutes, maybe; probably not hours, but certainly minutes. An interminable wait. And then he was there, and Pete was clutched under one arm, sputtering, screaming, shrieking. Jimbo reached up, and Captain Starkey grabbed his forearm, hauled him and Pete aboard. They fell onto the deck, and everyone crowded around, the father and mother and son now at our end of the boat, clutching each other.
Jimbo stood. He glanced at me, and I'm sure he saw me, but he gave no reaction. Maybe he understood. Maybe he knew that I didn't. Then he took another look at Pete, and went back up to the cabin.
"Well, hell," the captain said. He knelt over Pete, rubbing his shoulders. "Just get that water out, son. Don't worry about the sharks, you’re safe now. Just get that water out."
Pete had no choice but to obey; he vomited water onto the deck in spasms, his body contorting.
"Well," Captain Starkey said again, glancing up at everyone. "That's a first!"
He looked at me. His eyes narrowed, but he didn't say anything. Neither did I. We held eyes until he looked back down at Pete.
The girl was still watching me with the same concentration that she'd given the sharks. From this angle, even the Caribbean sun couldn't help her. She had all the beauty of a microscope. I stood in the center of the boat, feeling the sea sway beneath me, wishing she would look at the sharks again, the ancient predators still locked in the midst of their feeding insanity. But she didn't.
About the Author: Daniel Davis is the Nonfiction Editor for The Prompt Literary Magazine. His own work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com, or on Facebook.
Story Song: "Volcano" by Jimmy Buffett