“Don’t touch me, you freak!”
I didn’t have to look to know what had happened. Billy had offered to help carry her gear back to the car. Divemasters make their money in tips, and guests appreciate a hard working divemaster. But Billy had reached for her bag without waiting for a response.
As I looked over he straightened up, gave her smile, and mumbled, “Okay.” He turned his attention to gathering up stray weights and returning them to the crate.
That’s why I kinda hate teenagers; especially the rich pretty girls. They live in a perfect little sheltered world. Billy’s abnormality being a threat to their precious perfection, they have the capacity for serious bitchiness. I glanced over to the parking lot, though, and saw both her parents by their car, smoking and loading SCUBA gear.
Billy didn’t deserve that kind of treatment. He was just trying to be nice. I walked over and gave her my navy chief voice, “You can get the hell off my boat now.”
I suppose I should tell you up front that Billy has a rare genetic condition. It’s kinda like Down’s, but not, I’m told. I can never remember the long scientific name; doesn’t really matter when it comes down to it.
I met him years ago when I started teaching SCUBA diving at the pool of the local Y. He was in his senior year of high school, and someone had helped him get a job working there. He’d hang around and watch, initially. After a few months he’d show up in swim trunks and be messing around in the pool before or after class.
I knew enough to realize he was unlikely to be successful with diving. But he was so intent on watching us that I eventually asked the other staff about him. One day when I was in the pool alone, about to get out and pack it up, I called him over. I offered to show him how to wear a mask. I figured he wouldn’t like it. A lot of special needs folks don’t like it when you start shoving stuff in their face. But I could at least say we tried, right?
Well, he got the mask on, and thought that was a hoot. I showed him how to breathe through a snorkel. He liked that too, which was promising. Getting a set of fins on him was easy enough. And he was thrilled to be snorkeling around the pool, shooting along the bottom occasionally.
I packed it up there, but the next session, guess who’s sitting by the pool at the end of my lesson? Long story short, I started walking him through SCUBA pool training. I figure he’d hit his limit pretty quick, flip out when his mask flooded or something. But he loved it, so I just kept going. Don’t tell PASI that part though, they’d be pissed that I didn’t have any waivers signed at that point.
I’d long since run him through all of the required pool drills before I ever met his mom. I was packing up my own gear a couple weeks later when a tall brunette came gliding through the door onto the pool deck. She circled around to my side of the pool gazing down into the deep end with a big grin. “Wow, he’s actually SCUBA diving.”
“Yeah, he seems to be getting a real kick out of it. And, I’m sorry, I don’t believe we’ve met,” I said, offering her a hand.
She took it. “I’m Jacki Dalton, Billy’s mom.”
“Oh!” Well, this was awkward. Didn’t think I would ever meet his mom. She was the one who was supposed to be signing all those waivers. How does one go about asking for a waiver after the fact in a case like this? I decided on a different line. “Sorry, ma’am, I took the liberty of showing him how. At first I didn’t think it’d go far, but your son took to SCUBA like a fish. Next thing I know, it’s kinda become a regular thing. He just got so excited about it, I couldn’t say no.”
“I know, he’s been so thrilled about it. He’s been telling me for weeks that he’s SCUBA diving. Billy can see the world a bit differently at times, so I thought maybe he was just swimming around in fins or whatnot. But he was adamant that I come see him. He usually takes the bus, but I figured I’d come pick him up tonight. And here he is actually SCUBA diving. Is he really safe doing it?”
“Oh, he’s only in eight feet of water, ma’am. I doubt he could hurt himself down there if he tried.”
“No, I mean, do you think he could do it for real? Like, in the ocean?”
That was how it started. I played along, still figuring he’d probably not be able to finish training. There were a couple more sticking points that had me worried. Given that I’d already half trained him, I didn’t say a thing to his mom about getting paid. Figured it as SCUBA pro bono work. Good karma, you know?
Billy loved the ocean from his first dive. He came back up from the first open water dive glowing and grinning. I don’t usually do the big showy presentation thing when my students earn their certifications. But in Billy’s case I took the liberty of calling his mom and making arrangements. The kid was so incredibly proud when I showed up at his gym class to present his open water diver certification card to him. I suppose I kinda sealed my own fate in that way.
So, what’s a kid with it-ain’t-Down’s supposed to do after high school? He had his job at the Y, but guess where he started showing up when he wasn’t there. That boy was an expert at reading bus maps. It didn’t take him long to figure out which bus to take to get to my dive shop.
Didn’t take too many friendly visits before I called his mom and made a suggestion. An eager young body that likes to hang around a dive shop can be put to work. I paid him minimum wage at first. He was just unskilled labor at that point.
He was good with the customers, too. I was surprised how few ever gave him a second glance. His facial proportions kinda tell the story, you know. And he speaks well, but his occasional stutter leaves no doubt. Folks didn’t want to buy gear or book training through him though; and he kinda sucks on the phone. I couldn’t leave him to man the shop when I took a trip out on the boat.
Within six months of coming to work for me, Billy was a certified rescue diver with all kinds of specialty training. He was good out on the boat, and was learning to read my mind. He was delighted to discover that he got tips when he was particularly helpful. Happy clients leave big tips, and come back for more dive trips. Go figure, I quickly made him a regular part of the crew.
And well hell, if he’s gonna act like a divemaster I might as well get him trained and certified as one, right? Yeah, easier said than done. Billy is a great kid, but academics ain’t his strong suit. But damn, did he work at it. He pored over his materials for hours on end. His mom joked about missing her son during those weeks. He finally did it though, passed all his tests.
He was my best divemaster ever. Worked his tail off without being told. Kept the boat immaculately clean. Like, I served twenty years in the navy, and he managed to keep my boat cleaner than even I thought it needed to be. Damn near lived at the shop. Guests loved his friendly demeanor, especially on the days the captain was getting past a hangover.
But I’ll always remember that day with the bitchy girl. That’s the day things started to change. It was the second trip of the day, and we had a night dive planned for that evening too. All the makings of a long day.
I helped Billy haul the empty tanks through the back door of the shop, and left him to refill alone. I wandered down the dock to my favorite bar for a cheeseburger and a quart of beer. I bought him a cheeseburger and fries to bring back. He’d no doubt have the boat reset and ready to run by the time I got back. This was our standard MO for the weekends.
As I came back down the dock I saw the boat was all set. Tanks loaded, rental gear set up, clean as a whistle; Billy did good work. But Billy was nowhere to be seen. Guests would start showing up shortly, but I figured he was just sitting on the head or something. Setting his burger on the compressor, I leaned against a nearby post as I waited for guests to arrive.
I was considering if I could slip upstairs to my apartment for a nip of whiskey when I noticed the whispering. Over the sound of the water lapping across the dock, it was hard to pick up. But even my ancient ears could catch the sound of voices whispering.
I walked over to the corner of the shop. There was probably a guest or somebody in the parking lot. But it was empty, and as soon as I rounded the corner I heard a scuffling behind me. I turn around to see Billy standing on the dive deck right down by the water.
“Billy? Were you just lying down on the dive deck?” There’s no way he could sneak onto the boat with me standing there, and it was too far for him to have been hiding behind the pilothouse.
“Ah, yeah Dale.” It was a good thing he never played poker. “I, um, there’s a gr-great big tarpon under the props.”
“Really? Awfully shallow for a tarpon, he must be hungry.” Why the hell he’d been lying on the dive deck, I didn’t want to know. I hoped he’d been taking a nap, but we both knew the hammock was better for that.
“Yeah, must be.”
“First four lined up with nitrox, right?” I asked to change the subject.
Waving at the four clearly marked tanks at the guest stations, he said, “Yeah.”
“Okay, they’ll start showing up anytime now.”
The whispering was probably from my addled, inebriated old brain. Or, maybe I heard Billy shuffling behind the gunwale. Except, I kept hearing it. Most night dives thereafter, I’d hear whispering regularly. I ignored it. Denial is a powerful thing. If you’d pushed me about it, I’d have told you Billy was talking to himself, or the water was rushing past the boat. I’ve never been one to go looking for trouble.
I never wondered why Billy was in the water for every night dive. They can be challenging for many of our guests. Having only a flashlight to illuminate the darkness around you can be intimidating. We prefer to have a team member in the water with our guests at night, in case things go sideways. They’re easy enough to keep track of, and they usually appreciate the guidance of a divemaster to find all those territorial nocturnal creatures.
It must have been a year after the bitchy girl before I even knew Billy wasn’t being attentive on the night dives. A couple came out of the water at the end of their dive. They were all smiles but asked what had happened to Billy. He’d been with them, and then he’d disappeared; flashlight, strobe light, and all. They figured he’d surfaced or gone off to help someone. They didn’t think anything more of it, because they’d had a great dive.
It caught my attention though. That was a small group that night not many teams to attend to. That Billy had disappeared was interesting. That he was so far off that they couldn’t even see his strobe was doubly so. I casually inquired with the other two dive teams when they came back up. Billy hadn’t joined them either.
Now it’s hardly a federal crime for a divemaster to wander off on his own every so often. It’s even something of a trade secret. All the dive teams that night were experienced solid divers, so none of them really required Billy’s direct supervision. But Billy didn’t come back up that night with a story of some new turtle nest he’d found, or anything like it. In fact, he didn’t say a word when he came back up.
I knew Billy was always the last one out of the water on the night dives. I hardly thought a thing of it. He was probably just communing with the reef, enjoying the peace and solitude. I’ve been there myself, so it didn’t surprise me. But all together it got me thinking, and discretely asking questions.
I quickly discovered a pattern over the next few weeks. He’d always go in the water for night dives. Unless he had a really nervous set of divers though, it became quickly evident that he’d go lights out after few minutes. His light usually only came back on a minute before he surfaced, when he was right under the keel. What was weirder was that he’d even pull that on overcast nights, where he’d need his lights to see anything. And he did this at all of the dive sites; it wasn’t like he just had a secret spot over on Hairy Reef.
I started checking his tank and computer after he went home for the night. Billy was usually a stickler for leading by example. Thus, he’d always be back on the boat with at least five hundred psi of air in his tank. Except on the night dives, he’d suck those tanks way down to one to two hundred. His computer told an even more alarming tale. On any site he could, he was finding deep water. You need to understand that’s usually a taboo thing for night dives. I never saw Billy being that cavalier during the day.
I started gently asking him questions. He always avoided them and when pushed gave me some of the lamest excuses I’d ever heard. Even at the time I didn’t think much of it. If the craziest thing my model divemaster did was get his wild on during some night dives, I could count myself lucky. Obviously, I hadn’t thought to connect this with the whispering.
It came to a head though about three months after I first noticed his excursions. We moored a good thirty yards off Crack Ledge wall. Billy had briefed all of our guests that they were not to cross the edge of the wall, nor go past forty feet. That didn’t prevent him from going lights out quickly and bolting for the wall. His computer later told the story; that he managed drop all the way down to one hundred feet. He stayed way too long at that depth, and then, since his air was no doubt running low, he began a fast ascent. Despite the warning beeps from his computer, he continued ascending from the depths at a rate it objected to. In trying to figure out how to keep him from getting bent, it pitched a fit. Told him to stop at thirty foot for a decompression interval. He was probably low on air. In any case, he blew past the recommended stop, and when he did so, his computer officially told him where to shove it and locked up into error mode.
Now when a dive computer comes out of the water in error mode, it’s beeping, screeching, and generally making a pest of itself. So as soon as Billy was on deck I knew he’d done something to lock up his computer. I didn’t say anything in front of the guests, and thankfully none of them appeared to notice.
Once the guests had left for the night, I sent Billy to reset the boat and grabbed his computer. Downloading the data from his dive, I saw his deep-water flirtation with decompression sickness. From my own years in the navy I knew a young guy like Billy was in the clear for DCS. But, it was time for an intervention. This was how people really got hurt while diving.
I had to drive Billy home after night dives. We finished long after the buses stopped running in my part of town. Once we were both in the truck with sodas in hand, I began, “Locked out the computer tonight, Billy. I don’t need to tell you I’m not happy about that, do I?”
“No Dale, I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”
“Computer says you dropped down to one hundred and stayed there. What the hell? It’s pitch black down there at night, and nothing is moving on the wall.”
“What have you been doing, big guy? You’ve been AWOL on the night dives for months now. I can turn a blind eye to the occasional wandering, but tonight’s little stunt was just reckless. What are you doing out there?”
Billy was silent, but a quick glance showed me he was nervous. He was sitting tightly, and doing that rapid blinking he does when his wheels are turning.
He finally found something to say, “Can we go out Monday night? I should show you. Would it be okay if my mom came too?”
“Monday night? We’ve got nothing planned for Monday night. And your mom doesn’t even dive.”
More quiet blinking proceeded his next answer, “She doesn’t need to dive. You’ll see. It would be better if we didn’t have any other guests.”
“What the hell?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“What… a turtle nest? A whole herd of octopuses bent on taking over the world? What?”
“I can’t explain yet. Can we go? On Monday?”
“I’ll talk it over with your mom, but sure. If she’s up for it, I don’t mind a night cruise. Just promise me you’ll be more careful on the night dives in the future, okay?”
In hindsight it all sounds so obvious. How did I not see it coming? But I didn’t. I was wondering if he’d gotten himself a hellish case of nitrogen narcosis. I thought there was a decent chance we’d be chasing the hallucination of one narc’d-off-his-ass Billy. What else would he have seen at a hundred feet in the pitch black? Like I said, denial is a powerful thing.
I was considering if Billy’s genetics could make him more susceptible to narcosis when he spoke again, “My mom’s worried about me. We’re seeing the neurologist a lot more these days.”
“She’s just being a mom. That’s what they do.” A few years ago I’d asked Doc Cline to do some research on Billy’s condition for me. I wanted to know what Billy was in for, and Doc is one of my regulars. He said it’s pretty similar to Down’s, but physical and mental degradation is more aggressive. Billy was unlikely to see, or at least remember, his fiftieth birthday. I’d never discussed it with Billy, we were both happy to avoid that conversation. Until now.
“We both know I’m going to go downhill fast.”
“Relax, Billy, you’ve got time. Don’t worry about what you can’t control.”
“My knees are already starting to hurt,” he said.
“Welcome to the club, kid.”
He shook his head. “I’m thirty one. You’re–”
“Yeah? Figured that out yet?”
“No, but you’re older than my mom, by a long shot.”
“Long shot,” I scoffed.
“I’m going to start forgetting stuff. I’m going to be a hazard to the guests.”
“I haven’t noticed a thing, Billy. You’re still better than Randy, even when he’s sober.”
“It’s gonna happen. It’s just a matter of time.”
Despite being the truth, I wasn’t going to enable this kind of thinking. “We all come with an expiration date, kid. Get used to it. ‘Sides, I’ll probably retire long before your mind starts going.”
“Nobody else will hire me when you do.”
“What’s with the morbid act, big guy? Is this why you’re getting all reckless out there? Is this some sort of midlife crisis?”
I pulled up in front of his place and put it in park. I saw his mom was still up waiting for him. “What’s going on, Billy? Please, you’re starting to worry me. Getting morbid, getting reckless. Tell me I don’t need to worry about you, big guy?”
“You don’t. It’ll be okay.”
“You want to tell me what big surprise you have in store for us tomorrow?”
“I’ll show you tomorrow.”
Aside from confirming that we were still going, he didn’t say a word about the trip the next day. We passed a normal day at the shop. I allowed myself an extra two beers at lunch to calm my nerves. Maybe the denial was starting to wear off, but I was dreading that trip. Billy was never this dramatic with me.
I took him out to dinner that night down at the bar. He has to know about my drinking, so I wasn’t too proud to finish a couple more beers in preparation for whatever bomb he was about to drop on the boat.
We got back to the shop early, and he mumbled something about tearing down a regulator in need of rebuild before his mom arrived. As he stepped behind the repair bench to avoid a conversation, I slipped upstairs to my apartment to the same purpose. I threw back another shot of whiskey as I considered how wonderfully this night was going. As I came back downstairs I saw his mom pull into the parking lot. Billy however was nowhere to be seen, the regulator was on the bench in his typically organized part pattern.
The sun had set thirty minutes before as I stepped out the back door of the shop and locked it. I turned around to the boat and saw Billy lying on his belly on the bow, with his head hung over the side. It was then that my stomach first knotted up. The whispering, I finally connected it. I could hear the whispering again, but it wasn’t whispering tonight. It was more like singing. I couldn’t catch the melody, but it was definitely musical.
I was straining to catch the tune of the song when I damn near jumped out of my skin. “Dale, please tell me you know what this is about?” Jacki asked from right behind me. “Billy was both insistent and mysterious about it. He’s never mysterious. He’s got me worried here. Can you please tell me what’s going on?”
I spun around. “Shh… You hear that?”
“What? No, hear what? Dale–”
“Shhhh! Billy is over on the bow.” I pointed. “But listen, you hear that? Kinda like whispering?”
“Damn it, Dale! How much have you had to drink tonight? I can smell it on your breath. Aren’t there laws about how much you can have in you and still drive a boat? I’ve told you before I don’t want you drinking around him.”
“I’m fine, but really–” And the whispering song stopped. I glanced over and saw Billy get up off the deck. When he saw us by the back door he waved us over. I glanced over my shoulder at her. “I have no more clue than you do. So brace yourself. Here we go.”
We boarded the boat. Billy cast off the lines as I fired up the engines. As I idled down the inlet I turned to Billy, “Okay, young man, where are we going?”
“Straight out, right off the wall. We don’t need a site or a mooring,” he said confidently.
As we pulled out of the channel and caught the ocean waves Jacki held onto the overhead rail and asked tersely, “Okay Billy, you got what you wanted. We’re all out here on the boat. What did you want to show us?”
“It’d be better if we were in deep water first.”
Even consumed by whiskey and dread I still fell into my usual role as his surrogate dad. “Billy, your mom and I have been cooperative here. If we’re not going in the water, then we’re in water plenty deep enough to see anything we can from up here. Spit it out, kid.”
The nervous tense Billy that I knew re-emerged. He looked down at his sneakers and hung from a hand on the rail by the door. “I ahh– I wanted to sh-show you– No, I w-wanted to… introduce you–” He took a deep breath and looked up at us. He said very slowly, “I w-wanted to introduce you to my girlfriend.” He then promptly spun around and ducked out the rear hatch of the pilot house.
His mother and I stood there in shocked silence for several minutes. I was the first to find my voice, “Shit, this isn’t good, Jacki.”
“Is he taking us to meet another boat? Do you have a radar?”
“No, there’s nobody out here. They’d have running lights on.” And the best alternative to meeting a boat was that my divemaster was delusional. By that point, I didn’t think he was delusional though. I had no idea what was really happening, but I was honestly scared to find out.
“Has he got some girl stowed away up there?” she asked waving at the bow.
“I really hope so.” She’d at least come up with a more bearable answer than I had.
As we pulled out over the drop-off and into deep water, I pulled back the throttles. When Billy gave me a chop at his throat, I cut the engines, leaving us with nothing but the sound of water slapping against the hull. “Okay, Jacki. I’m gonna go out on a limb and bet that we’re not talking about a stowaway here. I’m thinking we have a big problem. At best, he’s decided that some turtle or shark is his girlfriend. Failing that, he may be having delusions.” Either that, or we were about to get our minds blown; but she didn’t need to hear the musings of the drunk part of my brain.
“Oh God, no,” she mewed. “He’s too young. He shouldn’t be that far along yet. There should be signs before this. He shouldn’t just go straight to hallucinations. Oh God.”
“Jacki, he needs you to pull it together. You need to go out there and let him show you what he’s going to show you.” That way his mom could be the one to actually break that big ol’ heart of his. “Do what you gotta do. He’ll probably get upset. Try to ease him down as best you can. I’ll be around. You start, I’ll finish.” This sounded to me like as reasonable a plan as could be found for a situation like this. How do you go about telling a grown adult that you’re seriously concerned that something is about to get freaky? I let that one be. No need for her to think I was both chicken-shit and crazy.
“Now I wish I’d been drinking too.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, here we go.”
We both stepped out of the pilot house and I swung around to the bow. I gazed out into the darkness, and listened in as best I could.
“You should take a seat there, Mom.”
“Really, Billy, just show me. Please sweetie.” If she weren’t ten years my junior I could see falling for that lady. Even as strung out as she was, she managed to muster enough strength in her voice to sound like a patient mother.
“Mom, would y-you please sit down?”
“Fine. Now can I see?”
The whispering emerged from the water. I can’t begin to explain how a sound emerges from water, but it did. It was loud, too. It was singing again, but in a wispy incomprehensible tune. Just listening to it made my whole body relax. All the tension melted away and I’d have thought I was out for a pleasure cruise, had I not remembered exactly what was going down aft of me.
“Mom, this is–”
“BILLY! NO! Get back!” Jacki screamed in terror. The whispering cut off instantly.
That was enough to knock me loose. I was back on the dive deck in an instant. Jacki had her arms wrapped around Billy and was wide-eyed staring at the empty water off the back. Her pale face and trembling hands matched her prior scream.
“Billy, you okay?” I asked.
Looking a bit dazed himself, “Yeah, Dale. She just startled me. I didn’t think she’d…” He pried his mother’s arms from around him. She didn’t put up a fight, just stared at the water behind the boat. “Anyway, I think we should go back. M-mom’s not ready for this.” He headed into the pilot house and the engines roared to life. He wasn’t actually licensed to drive the boat, but the Coast Guard was the least of my concerns at the moment.
I stayed back with Jacki. Billy put the props in gear and brought us around. I eased her back into her seat and finally asked in a low voice, “Jacki, what happened? What was it Jacki? What’d you see?”
Her eyes started blinking again and her mouth began soundlessly working. “He– It was–” she finally managed. She shook her head and pointed to the water. “No. I don’t–” She stood back up and turned to the rail. She leaned over and vomited over the side. She turned back around and looked at me, with a string of bile stretching along her lower lip. Wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, she said, “Give me a minute please.” She dropped back onto her seat and fished a pack of cigarettes out of her purse.
“Jacki, did you hear the singing, too?”
“Singing? Please. Dale, just give me a minute.”
As she tried to light up I turned and ducked back into the pilot house.
When I stepped up beside Billy he offered me the wheel. I took over and let the silence be as we headed back for the inlet.
As we slowed to enter the channel Billy began, “S-sorry Dale. That wasn’t how that was supposed to go. I don’t know why mom freaked out like that. I thought she was r-ready. I don’t know why she couldn’t hear her.”
“Billy, who’s your girlfriend? I didn’t see. I heard her, but I didn’t see. Clearly your mom did, and it has upset her… deeply.”
“You heard her?”
“Yeah, I realize I’ve been hearing her whispers for over a year now.”
“Why can you hear her, and mom can’t?”
“How the hell should I know Billy? I don’t even know what she is?”
In his most resolute voice Billy concluded the conversation with, “I don’t know what to do, Dale. I n-need to think about this.” He swung out the side door and went to sit on the bow.
We pulled back up to the dock and Billy secured the lines. He then began moving tanks back and forth to the wall of the shop. I was wondering why when I heard his mother behind me, “Sorry, Dale, I blew it.” I turned to look at her, leaning against the edge of the hatch behind me. “Sorry. He’s got some big fish thing out there. I was so nervous and stressed that I freaked out when something actually started coming out of the water.”
I looked her in the eyes, “Jacki, what was it?”
Her eyes dropped to the deck and she said, “Take him back out one of these nights, let him show you. I’m sure it’s nothing. You’ll know it when you see it, I’m sure. I was so scared that this was something serious that I just flew off the handle. I’ll talk it over with Billy when we get home. I’d like you to see it though. Just so you know what’s going on. I didn’t recognize what it was, but I’m sure you will. Just some big fishy thing. And, it is big, I’m warning you Dale. I want to know what it was. No hurry, but… I didn’t know anything that big would try and put its fins on the floor or anything. It was big, and I thought it was going to climb up onto the boat. I panicked. Sorry.”
“Big fishy thing, trying to climb onto the boat…” I was cycling through the inventory of large sea creatures that could fall under that description. Maybe she saw a sea lion, they’d probably try to climb up onto the dive deck. Walrus never come this far south. I’d have heard the splash if it’d been a shark or dolphin. I’d never heard of friendly mahi. Turtle maybe? None of them sang though. “Are you sure it was a fish?” I sighed. “I heard singing when it came up. I couldn’t even start to explain how, but… it was singing.”
“Billy must have freaked us both out then. Because there was no singing. It was actually really quiet and graceful, until I screamed.”
“Are you really sure that was just a fish?”
Her poker face was only slightly better than Billy’s. “Yeah. I’m sorry I scared you all. It’s just a fish. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what he thinks it is. I’ll text you or email you before I got to bed.”
As a man familiar with denial, I knew it when I saw it. “Ms. Dalton, I–”
“Don’t Ms. Dalton me. I’ll talk to him tonight and figure out what it was. I’ll let you know and you can go verify it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” I’m not sure if I was more scared right then, or when Billy told us we were going to meet his girlfriend. She was looking for a rational explanation to something irrational. She stormed off to her car and leaned against it. Chain smoking cigarettes waiting for Billy.
Once she was clear, Billy finished making a show of work and slipped into the pilothouse. “Dale, you could hear her?”
“I need you to take me out tomorrow night. I want you to know about her.”
“Look you and your mom should talk about this–”
“She’s gonna ignore it. We’ll talk, and she’ll make herself feel better. If she can’t hear her, then I don’t think I can e-ever explain it to her.”
“You think you can explain this at all?”
“Once you see her. Yeah. You’ll take me, tomorrow night?”
I sighed. “Yeah, man. I’ll take you out tomorrow.”
He got a big grin on his face for a moment and turned to go. Billy then paused and looked back at me, the grin gone. “And, aaah, Dale? You’ll want to have somebody who can say they were with you tomorrow. Not on the boat. Someone you can trust.”
“Aaw shit. Bill, you’re scaring me. What the hell?” I smacked the wheel with my palm so hard it started aching. I reached over and killed the electrical, and all the lights on the boat went out. In the harsh shadows cast by the lights on the back of the shop I looked Billy right in the eyes. “I gotta ask. I’m your friend. You aren’t thinking about, you know, hurting yourself are you? I mean come on. You just told me to get an alibi.”
He actually laughed at me, “No, it’s not like that. I w-wouldn’t hurt myself, or kill myself either. She wouldn’t hurt me either.”
“Well, that just makes me feel great about taking you out, then. What is she Billy?”
“I don’t know. But you’ll understand when you meet her.” His head snapped toward the bow. “I’m gonna go over there now. But, I’ll see you tomorrow.” He turned and hurried to the bow.
As Billy stepped out of the pilothouse I glanced over at his mom. She was talking on her cell phone. I half hoped she was calling a shrink and was going to drag him straight to the nuthouse. Whatever was going to happen–
The whispering started again. Billy had his head and shoulders dangling off the bow. To this day, I wonder if things would have been different if I’d just leaned over the gunwale and peeked. But I didn’t.
The next day Billy and I worked late, and then I took him out to dinner. He was all happy and chatty, like nothing was wrong. We didn’t talk about it at all. I asked about his mom, and he said she understood as well as she ever would. I drank more than I should have at dinner. I guess I was trying to soak up all the courage I could.
Once the sun was down, out we went. Back out to the edge of the wall. I killed the engines and the slapping of the water was the only sound around. Billy turned to me and was going to say something when the whispering started. He grinned and was exuding excitement as he said, “She’s here. Are you ready? You can hear her?”
“I hear it.”
He stepped out and started backing across the deck. Never taking his eyes from mine he coaxed, “Come on, Dale. It’s okay, come on.”
I followed him along the deck in silence. I tore my eyes away from him to watch the water off the back of the boat. The whispering was getting louder.
“You better sit,” Billy giggled.
I sat myself down on then end of the diver’s bench and leaned back against the rack. Watching the water in anticipation I asked, “This is gonna screw me up, isn’t it?”
“No, if I knew it, you knew it. There’s more out here than we can explain. She’s proof.”
As he said this, the whispering changed to singing. It was louder this time, so loud. I realized it wasn’t loud though, still just barely audible. It was digging into my brain, though. It echoed in my skull. I was just sitting on the bench, and all I wanted to do was listen to her song. So I waited.
I can’t really describe her. Mere words fail. Billy turned to the water and she came rising out. She didn’t even rise out of it, as much as she came through it. She was dry there before me. It was a gorgeous woman, but she was glimmering. Her skin was shimmering like fish scales. But she wasn’t scaly, it was smooth dry skin. I’m sure it would have been warm if I touched it. White flowing hair blew in the breeze as she stood on the water in front of us. Her beautiful green eyes locked onto mine and her song ended what little conscious thought I had left.
If she’d offered me her hand, at that moment, I’m pretty sure I’d have gone with her, too. Sitting there enthralled, I knew she loved us. We were the beautiful creatures she made special trips to the surface to come see. We were beautiful bold creatures to her. She’d take Billy with her, and ensure he got to be amongst the reefs he loved to explore.
She slid back under the water just as gracefully as she came. Her song stopped, but the whispering persisted.
It took me a second to get her out of my head and reclaim control of my body. When I finally managed to draw a big breath I turned to see Billy standing there grinning at me. “You see? You understand?”
“You’re going to go.”
“You’re not coming back, even I know that.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
My brains were just starting to slowly produce thoughts of their own again. “What am I supposed to tell your mother?”
He stepped out onto the dive deck and looked over his shoulder at me. “I don’t know. Don’t. She knows as well as she ever will. What would you tell her, even if you could?”
“Billy, she’s amazing. But I’m not sure if this is a good thing.”
“I am. She’s my soulmate. She’s the only one on this whole planet who really understands me. I’ve been building the courage to go with her for months now, I guess.” He turned and gazed into the water. “Bye, Dale. And, thank you.”
In the blink of an eye she shot from the water. I saw one hand come up to caress his cheek, as the other wrapped around his shoulders. Her hungry eyes met his, then flicked over to me for only an instant. With an innocent grin on his face, she snatched Billy from the dive deck, and they were gone. Back into the black with a splash and a flash.
That look. I’ve spent many long nights since lost in a bottle, wondering what it was I saw in those eyes right before she claimed him.
Ryan Anderson is a consultant and SCUBA instructor in Greensboro, NC. When not working, writing, or peering into the dark abyss below him, Ryan serves as the president of the Writers Group of the Triad. Mr. Anderson’s work has also appeared in Domain Science Fiction.
Images by Amber Clark of Stopped Motion Photography.