The ocean was flat and black. He searched its surface for a glimmer, any reflection of the carnival curio lights of the boardwalk or the few dim stars that would suggest something other than nothing existed. He found none.
The ocean was his happy place, but he had never gone at night. The sand was cold and a callous breeze whipped grains into his skin. He looked at the boardwalk’s distant glow. Its rides and sounds and smells were a small port of safe harbor from the vast blackness and blankness. He wished they hadn’t walked so far.
His toes searched for remnants of the sun’s warmth beneath the sand. The shore was alien and uncomfortable, but the ocean was downright unnerving. The thin gloss of surf that hissed towards them with each breaker was dark and fathomless. The depths beyond were darker, deeper, and extended until they melded with the night sky and he knew they went even beyond that. He didn’t like looking at it so he looked at her.
Her round, baby-cheeked face was plain and glum and her loose brown hair flurried around the shoulders of her billowing gray sundress. She was looking out at the ocean and turned to him when she felt his eyes upon her. A frown raised her nose and dimpled the corners of her mouth. It was a disposition that departed from the status quo: dime-bright eyes and a cutesy cheer that tended to yield a toothy smile.
“What?” she said.
“Nothing. Is there anything you want to talk about?”
“No, I’m okay.”
“Well . . . you seem upset, even back at dinner and when we were playing games.”
He knew she wasn’t. The pall cast by her mood had tangibly enveloped them both as well as the rest of their weekend vacation. After almost three years together they were attuned to each other on many levels, and one’s happiness or sadness belonged equally to the other whether they liked it or not.
He decided to look back at the ocean.
“You see how flat it is? That means it’s dead tide.”
“Oh,” she said.
“It’s the worst time to go fishing or crabbing or anything like that. The tide isn’t moving in or out so the little fish aren’t going anywhere which means the big fish aren’t following them. It’s hopeless. To catch anything, I mean.”
She drew her knees up to her breasts and hugged them but did not speak.
“Would you ever go swimming in the ocean at night?” he asked.
“Um, no, I don’t think so.”
“I wouldn’t either. I’d be too afraid . . . but I wonder if they will.”
Along the desolate beach, from the direction of the boardwalk, came a teenage couple. They looked to be on the verge of entering college, just as the two who sat watching them had graduated only a few days ago. She wore a slim white one-piece that burned like a bright moon and he was in red trunks. They were frolicking along the wet sand, pushing and groping and laughing, oblivious to the older couple.
“I wonder how long they’ve been together,” she said.
This time he said nothing. They both watched as the pair romped across the shore, enamored with each other and the world between them. It felt surreal to him, like looking at an old photograph of oneself but only being able to see a different person.
“There she goes,” he said as the boy lifted her and rushed into the surf. She was yelling and pounding his back in unconvincing protest. Her smile was too wide. They dropped into a breaker and emerged in an embrace.
He reached for her hand and held it. She always mentioned how their hands met at just the right height so no one had to stoop or tiptoe when they walked. A perfect fit.
“What are you thinking about?” she asked.
He looked up at the sky and lied. “What we’re going to do tomorrow.”
She shrugged. “Probably go to the beach in the morning and then head home after lunch if that’s okay with you.”
“Sure, sounds fine. How about you?”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Well it has to be something.”
She paused. “I’m thinking about them and if they’ll ever be sitting here like us.”
He was surprised and relieved that she had said it. “They will, everyone goes through their ups and downs.”
Neither of them took comfort in his platitude. There was something larger lurking just beneath the surface.
“Maybe it has less to do with them and more to do with us,” he said carefully. “Our futures. Where we are going. Those sorts of questions.”
She nodded and her mouth sank deeper. “That’s not a fun conversation to have on our vacation.”
“It’s not but . . . at the end of the day,” his voice rose and quickened, “either we’re going all the way together or we’re not.”
He let go of her hand.
She said nothing for a long time.
Finally, softly, she said, “It’s just strange. We’re still so young.”
“But it’s the truth.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just I guess that every couple has to have this conversation at some point.”
Her hand shot out and laced into his, squeezing so tight that it made him wince. His heart and stomach loosened as he felt her fear of losing what they had.
“Ah . . . ah . . . .” She jittered her index finger at the ocean and he realized that she was afraid of something else.
A curved fin sliced through the surf, unzipping the still blackness only to have it resewn in its wake. The two lovers had swum out further and were unaware of what was approaching.
“Hey! Get out of there!” he yelled at the boy.
They both looked at him incredulously.
“SHARK!” they screamed at them in unison.
The girl shrieked and the boy tried to run through the neck-high water before realizing the futility of it and breaking into a frantic front stroke.
The fin pivoted and traced its terrible line to the thrashing boy, gaining speed. Seeing where the shark was going the girl splashed and yelled even though she was further from the shore. It swam past her without pause or shift.
The older couple ran into the ocean up to their knees and shouted as the boy struggled for their outstretched arms. His cherubic face was wrought with fear and panic as he gurgled air and swallowed seawater.
The fin was bearing down on him, closing the distance with unstoppable speed. The water it displaced as it rose closer to the surface looked like the wake of a massive torpedo. He was amazed to see the girl following in it with quick, smooth strokes.
His desperate hands met theirs. They backpedaled furiously. A roar filled the air as a gaping ring of serrated bone seated in raw, red flesh broke the surface, gallons of water whooshing down its gullet. He felt his bladder release and their screams fused into one as they gave an adrenaline-fueled heave and fell backwards onto the wet sand.
When he opened his eyes the black ones of the heaving fish met his, the sockets like offerings filled with the ocean’s darkness. But unlike the sea his reflection stared back at him, as clear and real as in a mirror. A morbid fascination with his face in those lifeless pools welled up in him. He wondered who or what else had found itself there. Right before everything ended.
The shark squirmed and flapped its fins on the sand, breaking his rapture as it lifted its scarred snout and gnashed its teeth inches from their heels. He stood on shaking legs and helped the sobbing boy and his own girlfriend up. A veneer of surf brushed under the shark and over their feet; the sea trying to give its emissary the few inches needed to complete its task.
The girl walked up from behind the beached fish and went to the boy. She held him as the older couple stared at the shark. After a few moments, she and the boy looked too. It appeared to be grinning up at them as if it had succeeded in a way that they were not privy to.
A triangular tooth lay in the sand at their feet. The girl picked it up. It matched her glowing swimsuit and radiated in her hand like a white-hot knife blade. The others regarded it in awe.
Holding it before the shark, she caressed its snout as it grunted and chuffed. It began trying to worm its way backwards into the sea.
She swung her arm and jammed the tooth into its eye. The shark reared and slammed into the sand, writhing and twisting away from the girl. She stood her ground as the others stepped back. Undulating its massive body, the fish dragged itself into the surf. Its dorsal fin split the surface before it slipped beneath and disappeared into the darkness.
They walked back to the boardwalk in silence, each pair holding each other, harrowed by what they had experienced. At the edge of the lights, the girl in the white one-piece turned to them.
“Thank you,” she said, “you saved my life.”
The boy looked at her as one might behold an angel.
Later that night, back at their worn hotel room, they made love. She was cold and blue to it, and all he could think about were the shark’s eyes and the black abyss they beheld.
Andrew Punzo lives near Newark, New Jersey. His short fiction has appeared online in Every Day Fiction (forthcoming), Theme of Absence, and The Sirens Call, and in the anthologies Mindscapes Unimagined (2018) and Crypt Gnats: Horror You’ve Been Itching to Read (forthcoming). Andrew is an avid outdoorsman and enjoys reading a wide variety of fiction.