“What would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams.”
― Werner Herzog
“I don’t know about this,” I say again. Something in my gut doesn’t want me going back in the water. I glance at the dock above hoping a lifeguard or worker spots us. But when Lance tugs me along into the sinister looking waves, I follow obediently. I can’t say no to him. He smiles back and tells me not to worry; so I don’t. We swim the length of the dock until we’re next to the piled high garbage barge.
Lance lifts me on deck, sinking as he does. Manny and Sophie are already on board, crouching behind piles of glad trash bags. They reach out and pull me the rest of the way. Out of the water, I take a moment to rest, lying on my stomach with a cheek pressed on a hard surface as rough as cement. My eyes close, tired, only to snap open with the weight of the day. Lance flops on board next to me and smiles. “See, nothing to worry about.”
We walk hunched over towards the front of the barge, away from the control room. It’s slow moving, sidestepping giant roaches that call the boat home and hiding whenever the voices of men working on the dock get too close. “Isn’t this crazy” whispers Sophie next to me. Riding the barge back to the mainland was her idea. Her strawberry blond hair, short bangs, and giddy smile make her look more like a model boarding a cruise ship than a twenty-something stowing away on a floating garbage truck. I nod back, but not in agreement. I’m still mad at her. Her wanting a funnel cake is the reason we missed the last boat home. But Sophie’s giddiness is infectious, and I really am happy to be getting off the island.
We reach the front of the barge and sit, Lance falling next to me. He lets his legs dangle over the edge and puts an arm around my shoulder. I nuzzle my face into his chest and inhale the lingering scent of sand and sweat wafting off him and mixing with the sea breeze. I feel instantly better, calmer. His presence, the feeling of his weight on my shoulders, grounds me, distracts me from my own floating thoughts. I try to think of him and not of what I saw today. Swimming, together, with snorkels, we dove beneath Lover’s cove and fed fish of every color – blue fish that disappeared if they stopped moving, red fish that looked like flecks of embers, and yellow fish like tiny suns beneath the water. But my wonder led me too far and I swam further than the rest. I hit open water and something in me changed. The sea floor dropped away and I found myself staring into an abyss. I floated uselessly over a void so profound, so full of depth that I didn’t know if I was above or below it. I felt as if it were watching me, the emptiness, the void, pulling me in as if it were alive. And from its deepest reaches, a gurgle of bubbles emerged like a growl. I raced for shore and stayed on land the rest of the day. But as much as I want to forget, the emptiness I witnessed is all I can think about, even as sleep begins to press on me.
I’m afraid to sleep. I know I’ll dream I’m back under, staring at the daunting weight of nothingness. But finally my eyelids surrender to the heat around my eyes, and the last thing I see before sleep lulls over me is Manny and Sophie holding each other Titanic style as the barge pulls away from Catalina Island.
Sophie’s shrieks wake me. I couldn’t have been asleep long, but already night has fallen. I can barely see through the darkness. I blink a few times and my eyes adjust enough to make out Sophie reaching over the barge yelling for Manny.
“Did he fall in?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” answers Lance next to me, “He was there and then he wasn’t.”
Sophie reaches over the ship’s edge, ready to jump. I hold onto Sophie to stop her, but she’s bigger than me and I can feel her struggling free. Lance is frozen, standing as if watching from far away. His stillness makes me panic more and I lose it. “Lance, help” I scream. He nods once as if only now noticing us and helps pull Sophie back on deck.
“We need help Lance, now,” I say trying to keep from shutting down. “Yeah, yeah, yes, okay,” he says and together we drag a kicking Sophie to the back of the ship.
The control room is empty. It takes me a minute to understand. The entire barge is empty. I stare down at the glowing navigation panel thinking that maybe, just maybe I can steer us to land. How hard can it be? But which way is land? I wish Sophie would stop that gurgling; this was all her idea anyway. My breathing gets hard and shallow and it feels as if something hard is squeezing my throat. My panic makes me frantic and I start smashing every button I see. A whirring fills the room as bright floodlights flicker on over the barge’s deck. “I’ve never been so happy to see garbage,” says Lance with a sigh of relief. Sophie looks out on the deck calmer and quieter, but I can still hear something gurgling.
Beyond the trash, near the front where we were sitting, a body floats in the water. “Manny,” says Sophie, in a whisper. The body bobs, almost as if waving, before disappearing. We all watch, waiting for it to resurface. My eyes are so fixed on the spot where the body disappeared that I don’t notice the barge sinking until I see water creep over the deck. Sophie starts yelling for Manny again.
The ship sinks quickly. In the few seconds it takes to waddle to the door, the water is at my waist.
“We have to swim,” says Lance, his skin so pale he looks dead.
“Which way” I spit with more venom than I mean. I can barely keep the panic out.
“It doesn’t matter, just swim.”
Lance opens the door and floating bags of waste flood in. We waddle together, hand in hand. I can feel the barge fall away with every step until it’s gone completely and I’m left treading water in a sea of waste. The floodlights flicker beneath the surface for a second before going out completely. In the darkness panic takes me; I can feel the pull of emptiness beneath. Lance pushes a large floating bag of garbage under me and tugs me along.
I reach out for Sophie, but she’s gone.
“Help,” Sophie calls out. But before I can yell back I hear a gurgling, a splash, and then nothing at all. “Soph-” Lance calls out, but I stop him. “Shh, Listen,” I say. From the darkness below we hear a gurgling sound. I feel the pull of water beneath me as I’m dragged under. I feel the void, black and cold, surround me as I become a part of it. I feel the pull of water dragging me down, then I feel nothing at all.
When the garbage barge pulls into San Pedro Pier it sounds a long horn that wakes all of us. Both Manny and Sophie get up from where they collapsed and disentangle their limbs. Lance nudges his chin into my hair and rubs my shoulders. “Almost home,” he murmurs. I reach out and pull his legs from over the ship’s edge.
“Look,” points Sophie as we pass under the Vincent Thomas Bridge. It’s green and lit with blue lights. Spanning the distance between Los Angeles Harbor and Long Beach, its middle is almost a mile above our heads when we pass under it. Still, I wish we were higher. In contrast to the harbor lights, the water below looks murky like black ooze.
“We jump before the ship docks and just swim to one of the piers,” Manny says to Lance.
“No. No more water.” I don’t mean to shout, but even the sound of waves crashing into the barge’s low haul reminds me of the gurgling. “Please, let’s just get off once the ship pulls in. What’s the worst they can do?”
“Yeah okay, sure,” says Sophie standing next to me and nodding at Manny to agree. Lance looks at me worried, but Manny just shrugs.
The barge pulls into the southwest slip of the harbor, next to a tugboat painted bright red. We wait until the ship stills before walking its length as casually as four stowaways can. Only an old man with a hooked nose and high rain boots standing on the tugboat watches us step off the thin gangplank and onto the dock. I can only imagine what we look like to him, beautiful Sophie in a yellow bikini and sweater, shirtless Manny with glowing brown skin, Lance, tall, also shirtless, and me, wearing a one piece that can’t be seen beneath Lance’s shirt. The old man looks at us then back at the garbage barge as if expecting more women in bathing suits to step off.
I look back too, feeling like I’ve left something beneath the water while simultaneously deciding never to go near the ocean again.
– Published in The Island Fox Literary Journal