(C) 2015 Brad Ashlock
AND HOW COULD the mist be red? No sun over the endless ocean that encircled him. Only rags of light dangling from the cloud lines of yesterday’s storm. Never mind the color of the murk—was it moving toward him or not? It must be alive. Ephemeral tendrils reached out, curling, groping. The haze was now 150 yards away. Two hours ago, when he had first noticed the blurred carmine smear on the horizon, it must have been a mile distant. A steady creeper that spanned 300 yards and swelled twenty feet tall. It chugged forward with the inevitability of a steam engine.
Bruce Marland rose from his belly to his knees, then stood on the surfboard, turned his head, and felt the wind caress the right side of his face. So how did the fog spread toward him, into the breeze? He smiled and the dried skin around his mouth crinkled and split. He snickered and blood bubbled from the corners of his lips. The briny air stung his smile.
He understood. He’d drifted in the Pacific for two days. No water. No food. Nothing between him and the circling tiger sharks but his fibreglass board. He was hallucinating. Demented. There was no red mist. Couldn’t be. Just the illusory embodiment of his fears swirling toward him, ineludible and grim, a symbol from nightmare yanked into reality. Marland returned to his stomach, satisfied that when the mist embraced him death would follow.
Marland had been an Australian surfing champion in the early nineties. Now he wrote inspirational books, gave inspirational talks, and tried to fuck as many inspirational women possible before his dick fell off. 249. He forgot if he included his pregnant wife, Echo, in the calculations. He pulled his hand out of the water when the shadow of a shark passed under him, rolled to his back, and closed his eyes. He couldn’t even score a sensible landmark of a number. 249? What a joke for a life. And the punch line to his final prat fall began something like: So this whale dies and is bobbing in the sea, when two assholes—
“Screw you, Squire.” His voice was a squeak against the drone of the ocean, the drone of his memories.
“Mate, The waves are olympic,” Squire had said. Marland watched the youtube videos. On a whim, they took Squire’s go-fast-boat out seventy miles from the coastline of New South Wales into the Tasman Sea. Idea was to encounter open ocean waves, surf the suckers drunk on rum like a pair of psychotic pirates. Marland was a boozy fifty-two-year-old, but ever ready for a challenge and ever confident in his own abilities, especially after a few fingers of Southern Comfort. But Marland and Squire never reached those fabled waves. Squire had rammed the speedboat into a dead humpback whale at sixty-five knots. Marland had been thrown clear of the wreckage. The craft nothing but splinters. Squire? Hammerhead shit by now.
Marland glanced back at the rolling red haze. Closer, closer, closer. A blue shark bumped the bottom of his Aloha surfboard. At first, the predatory fishes terrified him; now they were just noisy neighbours. He’d roll off the board in a daze by nightfall, he predicted. Shark bait. How slow? They’d chomp wedges out of him, legs first, progress to his balls, let him marinate in a cloud of blood. Then the feeding frenzy would commence. Anticipation of the first bite would be the worst part. Once the cake had been cut, what did it matter the order of the pieces served?
He swallowed hard. His throat constricted into a dry sponge catching his spit before the trapdoor of his Adam’s apple. “I’m sorry, Echo,” he said and for the first time in his life meant it.
How long before nightfall? The only thing around him to judge time by was the wall of red fog. Each heartbeat, it neared. He twisted on the board, trying to find a comfortable position, his cracked ribs protesting his squirms. His heavy-lidded eyes fluttered, closed. Time slithered. The crimson locomotive pressed on. Dreamless sleep interrupted by parades of disconnected images, and the churned feeling of flying, tumbling, crashing.
He gasped and opened his eyes. Red everywhere. That damn mist. It had reached him. A nebulous crimson mass of billowing vapour and tentacles; it was upon him and blotted out the sea and sky. Its columns reached for him, engulfed him. Panicked, he stood on the surfboard, almost lost his balance, waved at the cloud as if swatting at hornets, but there was no relief to the sting. He tasted the electrified steam: ionised air before a storm, coppery, infused with the tang of a licked battery. The red miasma expanded, muffled his ears, clogged his nose, blinded him to everything but its monotonous hue.
He choked, convulsed, slipped off the board, and splashed into the sea. Icy terror washed over him. He sunk, couldn’t find air, lost all sense of direction. He opened his eyes beneath the water. No sharks. No abyss. Red upon red, deep upon deep. Tumbling again? Surface? Bottom? He was drowning not in salt water but the fog itself. He heard whispers in the submerged gloom: someone calling his name? More illusion?
The red spun, gnashed, scratched, bit. It whirled him around and around toward the epicentre of a vortex composed of fear, water, cloud, memory, ecstasy. It wrenched him, penetrated him, absorbed him until there was no difference between himself and the relentless forces tearing at him. No consciousness. No ocean. No oxygen. Only red. In the last moments before total oblivion, he recalled Echo’s face, imprints in the fog of her swollen belly, but then the mist pushed her image away to fill his mind with vaporous red-ribboned braids.