Dead Man from the Ocean Floor

by Neil Clark

He climbed into my boat tonight, seawater spewing from the bottoms of his trouser legs, a thousand tiny crabs crawling in and out the holes in his bloated, blue flesh.

When I was young and the things under my bed reached up and stroked the soles of my feet, I survived by befriending them.

So, I offered this man some supper. Tried to make conversation.

I could have sworn I boiled the potatoes in fresh water, but they came out salty as hell. The cured meat bloomed with sea fleas. The plate was a haunted rock pool, the base a spectral, rusty green.

Between ravenous mouthfuls, he told me the ocean had taken him quietly in his sleep. Treated him like the sky might treat an angel.

You give yourself to the marine life, he said. You make your peace with thoughts of your family saying their goodbyes to an empty casket. You just hope that one day some regurgitated fraction of you will end up in a grain of sand between their toes as they sit on a beach somewhere, watching the waves lap the shore, hoping whatever happened to you out here happened painlessly.

We drank brine and talked about childhood nights with the things from under the bed. Letting blood-sucking vampires win at solitaire. Distracting killer clowns with Game Boy. Humming soft lullabies to weeping ghosts. Trying so hard not to cry too loud and wake the ones in the next room and make things so much worse.

Rotting fish roe seeped from his tear ducts, popping and trickling down to the corners of his mouth. Just like in the bedroom, his sobs were silent.

Outside, the storm roared on. Waves punched the hull like missiles.

His trousers did not stop gushing all over the cabin, the flow getting heavier and heavier and the water changing from clear and bitter cold to light brown to boiling deep red.

He dipped his hand into the rising liquid. Algae clung to his exposed bones. He touched my forehead and lowered his skeletal fingers down past my nose. They smelled of the metallic tang in your nostrils when a blast of fluid surges up.

He stroked my arm and led me to the massive rip in the side of the boat. I saw every crystal of salt in the ocean, clear as individual stars.

The waves around us slowed, like sniveling breaths after a fever dream, a peaceful sleep finally washing over.

Will it hurt when my lungs explode? I asked.

Relax, he said. They already have.

Neil Clark is a writer, but should maybe have learned how to swim instead. His debut flash fiction collection, Time. Wow, is due out in 2020 on Back Patio Press. You can find him on Twitter @NeilRClark or visit neilclarkwrites.wordpress.com for a full list of publications.
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