The only thing between me and that saw-toothed bastard is a pair of black Nautica swim shorts.
I take a deep breath and lean back into the life jacket. The afternoon sun bakes my face. Legs and arms underwater feel vulnerable, like your foot over the edge of the bed when you’re a kid. After countless hours the ocean seeps into my body. Where do I end? Where does the water begin?
Displaced water surges against me and I tumble from the surface again. Adrenaline shoots through me and I thrash about, screaming.
Same goddamn shark that sank our boat.
He killed Scott and Miller right off. Nancy managed to float along for a day then he got her, too. She didn’t make a sound, just gave one terror-wide look and was gone with me left floundering in a red plume of blood.
He’s a big son-of-a-bitch, that’s for sure. He took an interest in the marlin Scott was reeling in and ate the whole damn fish, hooking himself in the process. Nancy told Scott to cut him loose. Fish big enough to swallow a marlin was nothing to trifle with was her point but Scott, furious at losing his catch, kept battling him. Scott was the captain: Seaduction was his boat. Twenty-three-foot Grady-White. At one point the shark came alongside us. Great white. Nose to tail he was every bit as long as the Seaduction and then some. He was just toying with Scott. Could’ve snapped that line at any time. Miller and me were coming around to Nancy’s opinion of things when the shark breached, big white belly like an avalanche hurtling down on us.
Bit by bit the ocean had claimed Seaduction’s flotsam. Cushions. A hat. Bits of fiberglass. A broken deck chair. Blue cooler with a pack of water bottles inside was the last to sink. I tucked a few in the life jacket and kept the rest around me best I could like a mother duck herding her ducklings but most of them drifted away.
The shark passes me almost close enough to touch, his dorsal fin a dark gray sword slicing through the water. Yesterday another shark — a blue, I think — had come sniffing around before Mr. White had snapped him up. Nothing left but the head.
My heart is bumping in my chest and I can feel my arms and legs shaking but he doesn’t make another pass. Just before I lean back into my float a fin breaks the surface, heading right at me. It’s not him. Mr. White’s dorsal rises every bit of three feet above the waterline. This one is smaller, maybe a foot to foot and a half and brown. I duck my head underwater and get ready. Supposedly if you punch them or poke them in the eye it’ll spook them off. The newcomer materializes through the gloom thirty feet away, heading straight for me. A hammerhead.
Mr. White, mouth gaped wide, slams into the other shark tearing him in half.
I salvage a few scraps of the hammer. A fin. Something red and fatty. It’s been four days since my last meal and I resist trying to eat everything at once. The food lends me a little hope and energy. I lay back into a float and pray.
Nights are the worst. Small fish nibble at my skin. Moonlight plays tricks with the surface. I’m suffused in fatigue but can only snatch a few minutes of sleep at a time. I drink the last of my water.
Morning of day five and something just under the surface is moving toward me. Broad and black. Too slow to be another shark. It swims closer and the rounded head of a sea turtle breaks the surface. Leatherhead, I think. I’m not on the menu; he’s just curious.
“Mind if I hitch a ride?” I ask. Words are barely out of my mouth when Mr. White takes him from behind. The leatherhead is four feet across but the shark swallows him as easy as I’d pop an aspirin.
I find part of a flipper. It’s not nearly as palatable as the hammerhead bits but it’s protein. As I gnaw on it, I start to wonder if Mr. White is a little smarter than your average bear. Late afternoon and a speck on the horizon appears. It grows larger, accompanied by the distinct womp-womp-womp of helicopter blades clawing the air. My waterlogged hopes of rescue are wrung dry as the orange and white chopper draws closer. I wave. They flash lights. I cry.
The Coasties hover above me and my relief turns to panic when I see a rescue diver perching on edge of the cargo cabin door. I feel Mr. White pass below me.
My warning shouts are swept away in the rotor wash. The diver jumps, plunging below the surface. He doesn’t come back up. A man in a flight helmet scans the water, mouth moving angrily as he yells into his mic. The chopper flies off, searching in ever widening circles before returning to hover. They lower the basket. This time nobody leaps into the water to help me.
I imagine a worm on a hook and push the basket away. The Coastie with his hand on the tether scowls and points for me to get in.
The shark hits the basket like a locomotive and with a flick of his tail dives straight down. The man in the cargo door pinwheels toward the ocean. The helicopter lurches sideways, blades brushing the water before cracking apart, sealing the chopper’s fate.
I swim through the flotsam gathering what I can. I snag a few water bottles and a fancier lifejacket than the one I’m using. This one is sturdier with web pockets and a blinking light.
I’m sure the helicopter crew radioed in when they found me. Somebody else will be along, eventually. Maybe they’ll bring a boat.
A really big boat.
J.C. Towler, Jr. lives at the beach and is always on the lookout for the men in grey suits when swimming in the ocean. While not a trained ichthyologist, he has learned enough about sharks to know the females are usually larger than the males. One of his favorite movies is Jaws and so certain elements of the story are an homage to that film, including an oversized male great white shark.