Every once in a while, I want to post a story that I'm not sure will find a home anywhere else, for whatever reason. This is one that I wrote several years ago for a contest, and then reworked and revised several times since then. I hope you all enjoy it, and feel free to leave comments.
“Hole in the Ocean”
By Jeffray Harrison
On the ocean, things can change in ways that could improve, ruin, or end your life in a moment. Captain James Cooke had made a mistake that morning, and the weather was against him. Like his namesake, he had always prided himself on being adventurous, but scientific, ambitious, but careful. But in this case, his decision was definitely not scientific, and adventurous only in the sense that he had never done it before, and for good reason. The original Captain Cooke had always held it the worst possible omen to bring a woman on board, but somehow James had gotten it into his head that he could make it work. The guys in his monthly fishing group heartily agreed with the original captain in this matter, and had told him so before the trip.
"I didn't think it would be this hot out here," Mrs. Holly Cooke said, cringing in the shade of the small doorway to the cabin. "On the beach, it's hot, of course, but the breeze always balances it out." She sipped a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade through a straw and readjusted her big floppy straw hat.
All five of the guys swiveled in their seats, their fishing poles firmly placed in the holders at the aft of the thirty-two foot yacht, and James knew what each one of them were thinking. It had already been five hours and close to five hundred ridiculous questions or complaints, and James was running out of both patience and ideas on how to handle this.
"You could always go back below and rest for a while, maybe read, get out of the sun," James said, twisting his face into a smile that he hoped hid all of his frustration and anger.
"Eh," Holly said, holding her half-empty bottle against her face, "I'd just get bored down there. I'd rather watch you guys." She sipped her drink again and shifted her weight on her feet, leaning against the other side of the doorway. "When does the exciting part come? Anybody get a bite yet?"
All four men, still staring James down, now shook their heads in open and unabashed disdain and turned back to the flat ocean.
They were all Miami policemen, career cops in their forties who had come up through training together, worked the streets together, ridden together, made detective together, not to mention raising kids together and planning their retirements together. So naturally, part of that plan was to buy a boat together, a real yacht with a double outboard motor and enough bunks below for all of them if they wanted to stay on the water all weekend, and a saloon style kitchen and dining area as well. Out of the entire group, James was the only one who had made captain, and while they were all still as close as always, he had become aware in the last year or so how this development had made things awkward at times. Not as awkward as bringing his wife on a fishing trip, but still pretty awkward.
Normally on these fishing trips, James could close his eyes and become keenly aware of the movement of the ocean, the depth of it under his feet. Today, when he closed his eyes, he was aware of the waves of disappointment and pity emanating from his friends on one side, and the sulky stench of boredom and annoyance coming from his wife.
"How far out are we?" she asked. James opened his eyes to find that Holly had left the shade and comfort of the doorway and was now standing directly behind Fred and Arthur, her hands resting lightly on their shoulders as they squirmed underneath. She stared out across the ocean with that same displeased look she wore when looking at a bag of garbage that was still blocking the front door where she had put it an hour ago. “It seems like we’re out far. Is that safe?”
“It’s fine, Holly,” James said, “this is where the big fish are.”
As soon as he said it, he was sorry, and the snicker from Carl on the other side of the yacht didn’t help either. Fortunately for James, before Holly had a chance to respond, Jack was shouting and leaning back in his seat, alternately pulling back on the rod and furiously winding in the line.
“I got something!” Jack yelled, and James ran to the railing to see, along with the other three guys. It wasn’t really that often that they actually caught something, so any action was a cause for excitement, but from the way Jack was struggling with that line, it was clearly a huge catch.
“Hold it, Jack,” Carl said, running to the cabin wall and grabbing one of the spears mounted there. Just then, the fish leaped out of the water and seemed to hang in the air, arching and posing before striking the water again, while all five men gawked at it.
It was a Blue Marlin, and it leaped again, this time completely leaving the water, trying to throw the hook. Later, the guys would argue about whether it was eleven or twelve feet long, but for now they just yelled at Jack to let out some line before it snapped. Even Holly, despite the sun and the violence, moved to the railing just behind the men, to get a better look at the magnificent beast.
Carl stood ready with a spear on Jack’s right, and James grabbed another and ran to his left, stumbling along the way as the boat rocked against the waves from the crashing marlin. Every man stood by as Jack reeled in the line, little by little, exhausting the marlin and reducing its range of motion, trying to keep it near the surface. James had no idea how they would bring this monster in, but he was already framing the pictures in his mind of all of them standing next to the huge fish hanging from the dock.
Suddenly, the marlin made a hard dash to port. Jack leaned against the rod in its holder so it wouldn’t jump out of his grasp and let the line out just enough to soften the force, but it still yanked the boat to the side. Carl staggered and dropped to one knee, holding the spear point over the side. James slammed his hip into the railing and his right foot came off the deck for a second before he was able to regain his balance. His spear slapped Fred in the back, the shaft clanging against the back of his head.
“Well, get out of the way, Fred,” James barked, once he was securely on two feet again. As he said it, Holly backed up a step or two, and looked back at the cabin, a look of fear and indecision on her face. She still held the railing tightly in one white-knuckled hand, and her bottle in the other.
Arthur reached across Jack’s lap and fastened the restraint for him, and then strapped himself into the next one. Fred stepped back behind both of them and hunkered down, hugging Arthur’s chair as the yacht rocked in the opposite direction.
The marlin looked almost twice its size as it circled around under the clear bluish green water to port. Then it took off at top speed towards the other side, disappearing under the boat and emerging on the other side. About ten feet away from the boat, the line went taught, Jack leaned into the rod the other way, and the whole vessel jerked to stern as if it had been hit broadside by another boat. Fred fell onto his butt. James smashed the other side of his hip into the railing and winced as his flesh got ground in between his bone and the metal rail.
Carl went backwards into the railing hard, still clutching the spear, and both of his feet left the deck. He tottered on the rail for a split second before Arthur reached over from his secure chair and grabbed his thigh, forcing his foot back down onto solid wood. None of the men were speaking much, but the grateful look in Carl’s eye said enough.
Once more, the marlin circled around under the water, and once more it dashed under the boat to the other side. This time, Jack tried to let out a little line, tried to gauge when the fish would catch the end so he could reduce the impact, but even so, the boat seemed to turn on its middle, just about a foot, but enough to send everyone reeling.
There was a high-pitched scream and a huge splash from behind James, and when he turned around, Holly was gone.
He ran to the railing nearest where she had been standing, looked over, and saw her in the water. Quickly glancing over his shoulder, he saw Jack take the line clippers out of the kit beside his chair and cut the line. James hurdled the railing and dropped into the water near Holly.
She was treading water, but barely keeping her head up. The detective in James only took a second to see that she may have hit her head on the way down. He reached out to her, grabbing the back of her neck and pulling her towards him. Wrapping his arm around her neck and hoisting her onto his chest to keep her face away from the water, he swam sideways to the hull of the boat, where Carl was already dropping the ladder over the side.
“Can you climb up?” James asked, placing Holly’s hands on the bottom rung of the ladder. She nodded, but her eyes never met his, and her face was weary and contorted with pain. Holding on to the side of the ladder himself, James pushed her upwards as she climbed, until Carl could pull her up and over, onto the deck.
When James got his wet feet onto the deck, he was just in time to see Holly disappear into the cabin, and the guys standing against the aft railing, watching the marlin swim away, its blue fin barely piercing the surface now and then.
Storming down into the cabin where the bunks were, James found Holly sitting on one of the beds, dripping wet, with a towel around her shoulders, holding a cold bottled water from the fridge pressed against the back of her head.
“What the hell were you thinking?” he barked through clenched teeth. “Why were you even out on deck?”
“It was just a fish,” Holly said, sighing, “You guys will probably catch another one.”
James stomped his foot in rage “No,” he shouted, “not like that one.” He crossed to the other side of the bunk, looked out the porthole at the water, now much calmer than just ten minutes ago. “Dammit,” he pounded his fist against the cabin wall, “do you realize that marlin could have paid off the rest of the loan on this boat? Free and clear?”
Holly dropped the water bottle into her lap and began to cry, holding it in as best she could but still avoiding looking into James’s eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“Why in the hell did I even let you come out here? I must have been out of my mind.” James shouted, standing over his wife and glaring down at the top of her head, where a patch of red flesh was staring to show through the black hair.
James heard the engines starting up, and then the boat shifted and the view from the porthole swung around. “See,” he said, looking back through the doorway up towards the deck, “They’re heading back in, because of you.”
Holly said nothing, but cried quietly and put the bottle back against her head. James looked down at her once more with a sneer before shaking his head and climbing the couple of steps back out to the deck.
Fred was steering the yacht at a moderate speed back towards Miami, while the other guys sat around on the deck with angry looks on their faces.
“Guys,” James said, wiping some of the sea water out of his hair and off his face, “I’m really sorry about this. You were all right, I never should have brought her.”
“What the hell is wrong with you, man?” Arthur said, while Carl and Jack shook their heads and looked out over the water, both sipping at bottles of Coors.
“I know, I know,” James said, holding his hands out in front of him, “She’s just been a real bitch lately, nagging me about …”
“Hey, watch your mouth,” Carl said, turning around in his swivel chair with a stern look. “That’s your wife you’re talking about.”
“Well, …” James stuttered, “I’m just …”
“You ask me,” Jack said calmly, “Ever since you made captain, you’ve been different. Not a lot different, but a little cockier, a little harsher.” He took a swig of beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You know we could hear everything you said down there, right?”
James tried to replay the scene below deck, remember exactly what he had said, but suddenly it seemed like it was somebody else yelling at their hurt and scared wife, not him. He turned and looked down the steps at the empty doorway.
“Okay, I shouldn’t have brought her.”
“Damn right,” Arthur said, “but you did, and if you were just going to make her miserable, you should have left her at home. Hell, if you really wanted her to feel like crap, you could have stayed home with her.”
“But she begged me to …”
“Nobody wants to hear the excuses, brother,” Jack interrupted, “save your breath to go apologize to your wife.”
For one long beat, all of the guys were glaring at James, and then all at the same time, they turned their backs to him and looked out over the ocean. James looked up at Fred behind the wheel of the boat, and while he didn’t look down at James, he was shaking his head with the same expression of disdain as the others.
Slowly, James went down into the cabin. Holly was still sitting in the same spot, but with her face buried in her hands, sobbing. The water bottle was on the floor next to her, gently rolling back and forth with the motion of the yacht.
“Holly,” he started.
“This damn boat,” she said through her fingers. “The kids are all gone, you’re always gone.” She dropped her hands to her lap and looked up at him, her eyes gone dark red with salt water and tears. “I just go to work and come home, and before long, I won’t even have work anymore. I live like a single woman.” She kicked away the bottle of water at her feet, sending it skittering over to him. “Or a widow.”
James’s eyes burned, and his back suddenly hurt the way it always had whenever he had been in a fight, as if his body was tensing up to prepare for a punch.
“Do you know how happy I was that you made captain? That you were behind a desk instead of in the streets? That I wouldn’t have to stay up late, expecting a call from your supervisor, saying you got shot, that I would have to spend the rest of my life alone and without you?” She buried the heels of her palms into her eye sockets and rubbed them. “And now that’s just what I’m doing, because of that damn job and this damn boat.” Her face dropped back into her hands and her back heaved again.
James opened his mouth to say something, an apology, or maybe a comfort, but shame closed his mouth. He picked up the water bottled knocking against his feet and it felt almost warm. Tossing it on the bed, he stepped around divider to the kitchen and took another cold one from the back of the fridge. When he came back, Holly was still in the same state. He sat down beside her and felt the back of her head for the bump caused by her fall. After lightly pressing the cold bottle against it, he slid his other arm around her waist and pulled her towards him. She covering her face with her hands, she laid her head on her husband’s lap and allowed him to hold her.
It was a long trip back to shore, and they didn’t come up out of the cabin once.
The next Saturday night found them at the docks again, this time with James leading a nervously blindfolded Holly.
“I can smell the water,” she said, “we better not be near that damn boat again.”
Shrugging, James pulled the blindfold off her and smiled.
“I knew it!” she screamed, “you will never get me out on that floating deathtrap again. I told you.”
“Fine,” James said, “then we don’t have to take it out of dock if you don’t want to, but I want you to see some of that changes I’ve made.”
Holly squinted at him and then looked at the gangplank moving slightly near her.
“And we just get right back off and leave, without sailing anywhere, right?”
“Absolutely,” James crossed his heart.
Once he got her all the way up on deck, she could see the table he had set up there, with the white linen tablecloth, candlesticks, and roses in a green iridescent vase.
She pursed her lips and shook her head, clearly fighting back a smile. “Okay, you got me. This is nice.”
“Yeah, well, wait until you see what I did to the bunks down below.” James pulled her close and kissed her warmly.
“You know what, sailor,” she said, finally letting her smile loose, “You might just get lucky tonight.”
“So it’s not such a bad boat after all, right?” he said, moving in to kiss her again.
“Then again,” she said, backing up and pushing his face away, “you might not.”