Travis stood, arms folded, surveying the deck of the ship like a surfer looking out to sea for a perfect set of waves, the meaning of life, a tax loophole, dinner options. Blue sky stacked with clouds served as a backdrop to the sun-bleached platform.
Travis closed his eyes and took a slow gulp of warm air. A breeze stirred, cooling the stream that filled his chest to capacity. Holding his breath, Travis could gauge how fast his heart was beating against his lungs. Very fast. He was terrified.
“Heads up, dude!”
Another shot of adrenaline soured Travis’s stomach. Peeking under his sunglasses, the whitewashed deck flashed at him. His eyes adjusted, putting a picture to the clanking sounds ringing all around him. An over-tanned teenaged boy in cutoff shorts and a dirty red bandana around his neck stood holding the crank of a winch, mid-hoist, eyeing Travis with scarce patience.
“Dude, you gotta move,” the boy cautioned with a practiced sigh.
Travis jumped reflexively from the elevated bow of the ship to the surface of the deck as the boy continued cranking. Hauling something heavy from overboard on a stressed steel chain. The chain threaded through the pulley winch. Tick…tick…tick… Metal strained and clucked like a cooling radiator.
Travis watched the muscles in the boy’s shoulders pulse and flex under the effort. A glossy horse. Rivulets of sweat joined in a single stream to run down the two inches of ass-crack that stuck out of his shorts. Again, Travis closed his eyes. Tick…tick…tick…The sound of chain links coiling around the spool as the boy cranked the pulley. Travis took another deep breath. He could smell the ocean. Opened his eyes. Seemed it was the sweaty boy he was smelling.
“Captain, we’re ready to rock!” the boy hollered over his shoulder, across deck.
“Let her come, son!” came the raspy response from aft of the vessel. Captain Fyste ambled toward Travis, swinging a sloshing bucket of gore. Crimson droplets spattered the deck and baked black, on contact. Travis eyed the captain who resembled an end-cut of a prime rib roast. Pepper-crusted. Hands cracked like desert clay with knuckles of raw earthenware pottery. The captain glanced at Travis before returning to ignoring him. Then the captain turned to the tanned boy who continued cranking the chain.
“Mind my keel, butt-fish. You ding it up and you’re on scaffold duty repainting at dawn tomorrow!” Captain Fyste spat flan. The tanned boy snorted as if he’d heard the tune before. But he did crank more carefully after the warning. Tick…. tick…. tick….
The captain set his rancid blood bucket down on deck. On impact, a cloud of flies rose then resettled on the contents. The boy made a sour face and tugged his filthy bandana over his nose.
It seemed everything was being handled on deck. Travis took another moment to visit his creeping apprehension. He told himself not to freak out.
Cocooning himself in thought, he recalled her face. Lilly. His one true love. In Lilly’s shadow, every woman that came before was proof of why there was only Lilly. Why there could only be Lilly.
When Lilly was near, the whole dangerous world filled Travis with nothing but resolve. As if resolve was some kind of fertilizer sucked up through roots on the soles of his feet. Grounding! That’s what it was. Lilly kept Travis grounded. And in return Travis took Lilly for granted. He assumed she’d always be there. And Lilly, in her selfless way, reassured Travis that his assumption was just fine. She was going nowhere. She loved him no matter what. Forever.
That’s what made the change so bewildering. When Lilly changed so suddenly, Travis was ruined. He’d come home one afternoon and Lilly was like a different person.
Tick… tick… tick…
The heartbreak of losing her. The momentary euphoria of having Lilly return to him. Finally, having to give her up again.
Tick… tick… CLANK!
Travis nearly jumped out of his skin at the clatter. There it was, at the end of the tanned boy’s chain. A shark cage glinting on the deck. An eight-foot tall, battle-scarred matrix of bars and crossbars. It looked flimsy. On TV a shark cage was a solid-state, shiny barrier between scuba divers and Great Whites. This fuckin’ thing looked like a toaster oven that couldn’t keep out a fish stick.
Travis shivered, hoping nobody caught him, then turned away from the cage to find himself face to face with Captain Fyste. Sweat beaded on the captain’s forehead like amber tears of bacon grease on a grill hood.
“You look freaked out. You don’t have to do this, y’know. I’ll refund all but your deposit.” The captain breathed dead rat and beer in Travis’s face. It was somehow bracing. Nauseating but bracing.
Travis straightened. Nope, nope. This is my time. I gotta man up. I gotta do this before I…before…. It’s just something I need to do.
The captain smirked, “Why not skydiving or bungee jumping?”
“Too late now,” Travis shrugged.
The captain shrugged back. “Squeeze your ass into this then, tough guy. Let’s shit or get off the pot.” The captain thrust a slimy wetsuit at Travis.
The smell of rubber, crotch and something fetid underlying was almost worse than the captain’s breath. Travis took the limp black suit and, peeling off his T-shirt, began stuffing himself into the tight leggings.
He tried to be cool but every time he winced from hairs on his legs being torn out, the captain and tanned boy snickered.
Screw them, thought Travis. This was his moment. His day. He was going to conquer this, the last fear left in him. The captain could suck his dick. Tan-boy probably would suck his dick. Travis had already bungee-jumped, parachuted and even ran with the goddamned bulls in Spain. None of their business. Captain shit-breath and his twinkie cabin boy could go to hell!
“Want some baby powder?” the tanned boy asked in mock earnestness. The captain snorted and spat another bouncing wad.
Travis shook his head disgustedly. Fuming now. The boy read Travis’s ire and backed off. Even the captain seemed to drop his over-the-top Long John Silvering to occupy himself with checking the shark cage, easing up on Travis (the meal ticket).
Travis returned to thoughts of Lilly. Hair blowing out the window of the jeep. The scent of her. Suntan oil, lemon, perfumed sweat, hand soap. God, he loved her. Like a kid loves Christmas. If Santa came every day, it still wouldn’t be enough.
Oh, shit! Don’t start crying, Travis. In his daydream, Travis instructed himself to shake off emotion. Don’t let the fishmongers catch you leaking, Trav. He staved off tears, but couldn’t steer his thoughts.
He remembered the blush of Lilly’s face after sex in their new bed. How their bodies fit in the bathtub when they soaked together after a late night of lovemaking. The smell of Lilly’s body mixed with urinal cakes and French fries while boning like animals in the Taco Spot bathroom.
Oh, shit. Don’t get hard, Travis.
He lost Lilly. She returned. Then he let her go a second time. It was a hiccup that played over and over in his brain. He couldn’t stop it. He desperately needed to understand.
But since there was no understanding to be had, he needed to be scared. He needed the shit scared out of him or the fear of God scared into him. His chronic hiccup needed to be cured. The image of Lilly leaving him needed to be gone for good.
The cage lid slammed open making a horrible sound that expressed exactly what it would feel like to have a finger involved in that screeching impact. Travis stared stoically at the portal he was expected to squeeze through. Having popped the lid, tanned boy jumped down off the cage. The captain was chumming. Ladling his foul bucket of scabby borsht over the rail of the ship.
“You sure this cage’ll keep ’em out?” Travis asked weakly.
“So far,” the captain replied, making a dice-rolling gesture.
The tanned boy watched to see how Travis would react. Unexpectedly, Travis felt his balls swell to bowling proportion. He stepped past the captain who actually shuffled out of the way in surprise. Travis snapped his fingers at the tanned boy who instinctively stood at attention awaiting command.
“I’m going in!” Travis was fed up with the pre-show. He wanted to get to it, get in and get it over with. He impressed the crew with his strength and agility as he hoisted himself up on the lip of the cage and swung a leg over. Straddling, he looked down at the captain and the sheepish tanned boy.
“So, you’re telling me this’ll keep em’ out, right?” Travis raised his eyebrows.
The boy gave the cage a violent rattle before giving Travis a look of melodramatic uncertainty.
“Right. So? You gonna pray for me or get me some gear?” Travis gave the crew a WTF look.
Captain and boy sprung into action holding up a tank, respirator and mask. Travis donned the gear like a pro and then puzzle-pieced his way into the cage. The lightweight Pony scuba tank strapped to his back wind chimed across the bars of the cage as Travis adjusted in the tight space. He was ready.
The tanned boy returned to manning the winch. He cranked. Tick…tick…tick… The cage rose from the deck twisting gently in the air.
Travis stood stock still, checking his respirator. Adjusting the rubber seal of the mask that was already creasing the space between his nose and upper lip. He could taste the petroleum in the rubber of his regulator mouthpiece. It was a mellow and blunt flavor of bruised avocado and licorice. Tick…tick…t…
“Hold up!” The captain strode to the cage holding out something that glinted in the light like a trout belly or Lilly’s wedding ring.
“Here. Put these on.” The captain handed Travis a fistful of chain mail gloves.
Travis screwed up his face and hesitated taking the gloves. The captain thrust them insistently, “If you value pickin’ your nose or scratchin’ your ass, put ’em on, now! If…strike that…when you panic, you might be inclined to stick your hands through the cage bars. Everyone sticks their hands through the cage bars. The buggers go for your hands. Even with the gloves, a bite can break bone. But at least you’ll still have your fingers.”
Travis quickly slipped on the heavy gloves and cinched their buckles as high up his arms as possible. They ended below the elbow. Travis clenched and unclenched his hands making a sound of teeth grinding. The gloves made his arms so heavy. He held them aloft like a surgeon’s sterile hands, not wanting to lower them for fear the metal gloves might slough off.
Tick…tick…tick… The cage edged off the lip of the vessel and was now suspended over the abyss, swinging as dopily as a candy crane. Travis held his fists higher until they were practically balled up in front of his mask, obscuring his view. Travis let a thumb fly out of a fist to give the OKAY signal to the waiting crew.
“We’re away!” the captain hollered.
Tick…tick…tick… The cage lowered. Travis couldn’t open his eyes. He concentrated on his breathing. Tick… breathe… tick… breathe… tick… breathe…
Lilly… her face was dewy and luminous, turned toward the sun. She had made dinner plans with her sister. Travis would get home a little early, shower and change. They would head out quickly so that they could get to Cuban Pastry and buy a guava cake to contribute to dinner. From there, they could get on the 101, pick up the 10 and be in Santa Monica before rush hour clogged the freeways. Travis pulled into the garage at about 3:30. He parked and grabbed some flowers from the passenger seat as the garage door lowered behind him. Travis lifted his laptop from the trunk. He listened to the whine of water running through pipes. Lilly must be in the kitchen. Her favorite room in the house.
Tick…tick…tick… You’re okay. You’ll be okay. You’re fine, Trav…
The door from the garage to the kitchen was ajar. Travis stepped in. Water ran into the sink.
“It’s me…the serial rapist.”
“I’ve entered the kitchen through the door that never seems to be locked…”
“I’m gonna violate you on the dinner table…”
“I look like the smelly guy at the gas station quickie-mart… honey?”
And what was Lilly cooking? Ugh! Smelled like canned tomatoes and salt. So much salt…
”Oh god, no!” Blood! Everywhere. Blood and mostly silence. Except for the water running. Flowers hit floor tiles and exploded like dandelion confetti. Listening closer he could hear faint grumbling Travis couldn’t process. Where’s Lilly? In a thickening fog of confusion, Travis ambled to the sink instinctively turning off the water. Then Travis glanced out the kitchen window. Lilly was in the backyard with friends. They were tossing her limp body back and forth like a wet dog toy.
Travis stumbled out the door and stepped into Lilly’s favorite flowerbed making more confetti.
“Stop!” Travis yelped. The “friends” turned toward the sound. Travis was the sound. He took a step back and froze. The “friends” advanced…
“Travis! Get in the house!” Ted, the next-door neighbor, screamed as he strained to heave his upper body above the fence separating the two properties. Travis stared dumbly. In shock.
“Travis, move! Travis, listen to me, goddamn it! Travis, man. They’re gonna get you if you don’t snap out of it. Drop! Drop!”
Travis smiled dumbly at the trio ambling toward him. He marveled at the astounding color of his wife’s blood on her “friends’” teeth. In their hair. On their clothes. So much blood. Lilly’s blood. So pretty.
BA-BANG! Travis jumped violently as one zombie’s head turned into a gory piñata.
“Travis! They’re gonna kill you. Move, man!” Ted leveled his rifle once again.
Travis instinctively dropped to his belly in the flowerbed.
BANG! Another body hit the turf.
BANG! Wet thud. Then silence.
Travis looked up and found himself eye-to-eye with an inanimate monster. Travis took two seconds to observe the slight wrinkle creasing the drying cornea of the creature. Not quite a raisin but pruning, for sure. When he caught a whiff of decay, his wits suddenly returned. Lilly! Looking beyond the corpse in his face, he could see her. She was motionless. Entirely motionless now that the zombies had stopped tossing her around. Travis was suddenly up on all fours scuttling toward Lilly.
“No! Travis! Travis, she’s not… she’s not… done.” Ted was drawing a bead on Lilly.
Travis was making for Lilly’s body when she suddenly sprung upright. As if she’d been yanked on a cord. Travis was on his feet just as fast.
Lilly! She had come back. She was a little worse for wear, but she was back. The couple stood a hundred feet from each other. Travis stared into Lilly’s cloudy eyes. Lilly stared back a foot or two above Travis’s head.
The two moved toward each other then. Travis picked up the pace as Lilly ambled forward propelled by gravity. They were falling toward each other’s arms. She looked so pale. Yet still the most beautiful woman in the wor…
BANG! Lilly’s head deflated before Travis’s eyes. The liquid contents dotted the flower petals that were strewn across the lawn. Travis collapsed to his knees.
Neighbor Ted was crying, still clinging to the fence, rifle now slung over his shoulder. “I’m sorry, Travis. Man, I’m so sorry…”
Ted lowered himself from the fence. “I’m coming over to secure the perimeter of your house. Keep your eyes open for other ones.” His voice receded from the property line.
Travis sunk deeper into the damp grass of his lawn. He lost Lilly. She returned. Then he let her go a second time.
Now he had to face his trauma. He had to purge his unholy terror. He had to reclaim his life by confronting the fear that was holding him back. Well, that was the theory.
Tick…tick…tick…CLONG! The shark cage hit bottom, jarring Travis out of his tragic memories. He opened his eyes. He stood in a shark cage at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. The plastered surface of the large pool was sweltering hot.
Travis had to swivel his whole head to get any range of vision through his diving mask. Up, there was blue sky and the rim of the pool ringed with rose-colored ceramic tiles. Further up, the tanned boy and the captain peered over the rail of the ship. Travis scanned the sun-dried, crusted plaster of the concave pool. Lower. Huddled. Crouching in the simmering mirage on the stucco surface of the pool, a mass of…of writhing.
Travis screamed then. The scream was muffled by his regulator, but still made it to…them. The mass of “them” rose up and turned their attention to Travis. Suddenly the shark cage was surrounded by a ragged army of staggering corpses in varying states of decay.
Travis looked back up toward the captain and the tanned boy. They seemed so far away. Travis wished he could reach them. Begging through tears, “I changed my mind…please…”
In a flash, the zombies seemed activated. A dozen of them unleashed a rabid maelstrom of violence against the cage, rocking Travis who hyperventilated and moaned.
“I changed my mind! I want out!” The sound of his voice reverberated throughout the empty pool and came back to mock him. He could barely understand his own words. The captain would have no chance of hearing Travis’s pleas, assuming the captain would even care.
Spongy hands reached in to claw at Travis’s face, arms, shoulders. An emaciated claw nearly grabbed the regulator from his mouth. Travis instinctively grabbed the arm and ended up skinning the whole limb like a rabbit. The corrupted, gelatin flesh flopping like some rancid filet. The skeletal armature that was once a human arm snagged Travis’s chain glove.
Before Travis knew it, his gloved hand was pulled through the bars of the cage. Three mouths simultaneously chomped on his digits. The pain was blunt and potent. Travis drew his hand back and assorted teeth came with it. Waxy, petrified kernels yanked from blue cheese gums. Roots barely resisted before crumbling from their sockets.
In his hysteria, Travis still made time to remember. He lost Lilly. She returned as one of these…things. He let her go a second time.
“Three minutes!” the captain’s voice crackled over a PA.
A slurry of fleshy pulp covered Travis’s mask. Groping hands cut through the opaque film, making finger-paint trails on the glass. Travis could peek through the trails. His rapid breathing made farting sounds each time the pressurized rhythm blasted air out the nose vents on his mask. Travis could no longer clearly see the monsters clawing and grabbing but he could feel the desperate attack all too well. If not for the cage, Travis would have been torn apart like a wishbone. As it was, he felt the panic of a man being pinched or slapped to death. They were all around now. Struggling against the bars. Struggling to taste Travis. Hands reaching. Teeth biting air around the cage. All of them wearing away at Travis like perpetual water dripping on rock.
Travis slumped to the bottom of the shark cage, “H-help…”
Now the relentless hands were finding purchase. Travis felt his protective gloves shifting. A moldering thumb caught the edge of his facemask, lifting it for a second. Making an audible “pop” that let a blast of putrid air in. A smell made up of nightmares.
Without any attempt to hold back, Travis puked. The force of his violent wretch sent his regulator rocketing away from his mouth. Corpse fingers reached and tore at the regulator. Travis’s fear took over but he managed to suppress a second stream of vomit. He clamped his mouth shut, not wanting any vile putrefaction to get in.
Meanwhile, the mindless clawing continued. The regulator hose was being stretched to its capacity. The force threatened to pull Travis against the bars of the cage. Two of the zombies made kitty paws in the warm puddle of vomit on the cage grating.
The regulator snapped back and the force of impact cracked the glass on the diving mask. Travis wanted to live, but had no say in the matter. He was being worn down. He felt like a lone sock buffeted around a clothes dryer. The smell alone was killing him. His mask was broken, off-kilter. Almost torn loose from his face. Without his regulator in place, Travis had to guard his breathing, afraid to choke on the vile pudding that seemed everywhere. He panted through his teeth. Then…
They were trying to reel him back up. The shark cage rose just above the ground. It was now rocking from the force of the zombies charging at it.
The cage was now practically spinning, rising faster. Faster. Then stopping abruptly. The weight of the bodies clinging to it had halted the momentum. Now it was a labored, straining ascent.
The zombies were at face level with Travis. Some had gotten under the cage. Travis rolled on his back as the regulator hose was drawn around his neck and fell through the grating at the bottom of the cage. The hose was being pulled like an umbilical. Choking Travis. The cage rose. Stopped. Rose up again. Stopped. Travis was blacking out. He worked his metal fingers between the hose and his neck to make breathing room. But he was weak.
Travis grayed out. Thinking of…thinking of…
The cage was ratcheted onto deck. Travis lay in a fetal position on the cage floor. Twitching.
The tanned boy turned a fire hose on the cage, skimming waves of putty flesh overboard. The pressure of the stream stripped the gore from Travis’s wetsuit. Tanned boy adjusted the stream to diffuse it. He stepped closer and showered Travis, almost gently, before turning off the pressure completely.
The gloved and masked Captain Fyste approached Travis in the cage. “You gonna be okay? Mr. Byrns?”
The tanned boy rose from behind the captain. He steadied a rifle on his shoulder. Training the barrel at the still form of Travis Byrns. The Captain hocked a spectacular phlegm missile that joined the other elastic ooze that hung then finally dripped from the deck of the ship. Gore still ran off the false hull. Dollops of sludge dragged snot-taffy strings down the façade and into the pool to coalesce around the feet of the still moaning zombies. Hose-water chased the vile matter. Rotten flesh joined bloody chum in a whirlpool down the central drain. The last of the blood washed away, the zombies slackened. As if deactivated.
Back up on deck, the captain maintained his distance from Travis. “Uh, Byrns? You gonna live?”
Travis slowly unfurled. He snapped the mangled diving mask from his face. The captain handed him a towel. Travis wiped the splatter from his brow, revealing tears. Tears of joy were streaming down his face.
Travis pumped his fist in the air. “Whoo-hoo! That was a rush!”
Across the way, on bleachers, under the “Zombie Adventure” banner, Travis’s friends hooted and cheered, tossing paper sailor hats into the air, gagging and pulling their t-shirts over their noses to obscure the stench of the dead bodies. The tanned boy lowered his rifle.
Travis climbed from the cage and impulsively hugged the captain.
“Gak!” the captain cringed and grunted.
Travis savored the bouquet of captain’s rancid breath. Like perfume compared to the unholy rot he’s experienced.
Travis beamed at the crew. “I’m not scared anymore.”
“Well, you’re scaring me.” The captain almost busted a smile holding up a candid photo of Travis’s screaming, contorted face taken through the shark cage.
“Byrns, if you’re done beating off, I got live ones in line.” The captain nodded over at a young couple fidgeting anxiously waiting their turn on the bow of the phony ship.
Travis turned to his friends who were still high-fiving and whooping it up. Next-door neighbor Ted pulled his shirt from his face long enough to give Travis a wink and a thumbs up.
Travis nodded back, triumphantly. He let the chain mail gloves fall to the deck in a mushy heap. Only when he raised a hand to throw a thumbs-up back at his friends did he notice his mangled fingers twisting at odd ends. All but two were broken. He couldn’t tell which two. Thumb looked pretty good. The adrenaline didn’t let him feel the pain yet. He shook his hand and fingers lolled like an anemone.
Captain Fyste and tanned boy looked at each other with knowing eyes. Travis’s friends fell silent regarding his scarecrow-hand flopping in the breeze. Travis just laughed. His ring finger fell forward exposing his wedding band. The sun excited the platinum ring. It glinted wildly. Travis teared up again.
Joe Moe writes for Famous Monsters of Filmland mag, edits Mad Monster mag and creates catalogs for Profiles in History; premiere Hollywood memorabilia auction house. Joe hosts Mad Monster horror conventions nationwide and was caretaker for the greatest monster maven of them all – Forrest J Ackerman! www.gojoemoe.com Read his previous story, Hell’s a Cabin, in issue one.
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