Angler Fish

by Steven Patchett 

The tide has started to turn. The space on the little rock we’re huddled on is slowly shrinking, inch by inch by inch. My husband tells me it’ll be alright, the sea won’t submerge it. Even in the half-light, he doesn’t look my way. I know he’s lying. Of course he’s lying. The truth is terrifying.

Chris, our friend and owner of the boat, comes back from what’s left of it. The rising water isn’t lifting it higher off the rocks, so it sinks beneath the waves along with the only land we have. I don’t ask if he’s found flares, or a life-raft, or a life-preserver. He’s returned empty-handed. My husband can’t look at him either.

My child is shivering in my arms. He’s as soaked with stinging salt water spray as the rest of us, but he’s like a furnace against me. He’s getting heavy, but I won’t let him go. An icy wave comes over the rocks, and I stumble as it catches at my ankles.

Under my feet, the stone is no longer dry.

My child’s trembling is spreading to my body, my aching back starts to bend, slowly, so slowly, inch by inch by inch, lowering him towards the water.

Chris abruptly cranes his neck, stands on tiptoe, and tells us he thinks he sees a light on the water. Coming closer. The fear of hope is on me, and my son again weighs nothing in my arms. We crowd together, as we can hear the coughing rumble of an outboard motor, which is abruptly cut.

A little wooden boat appears, slowing as it approaches, lit by a lantern suspended on a pole above it. At the stern, in the lantern’s shadow, is a figure, huddled by the tiller. They throw a line, and Chris catches it. We haul the boat closer, and its captain fends it away from the rocks with a long boathook.

“You have a need of help.” the voice, rough and with a strange accent, belongs to a woman, still hidden from us by the shadow cast by her light.

“Yes, we’ve run aground,” my husband replies. “There are three of us and a child.” The woman is silent for a long moment. “My boat can take two, no more.”

We look at each other, uncertain.

“You go,” Chris says, at last. “I’ll fashion together some wreckage, stay afloat until help can arrive.”

“You’ll freeze to death,” my husband says.

Chris looks at me and my child and smiles. “You’re here because of my invite. A Captain goes down with his ship after all,” his voice hitches slightly, but he stays composed.

We hug as best we can as the water laps at our feet.

“I’ll stay, the others can go,” he tells our rescuer.

She is still for a moment. “There is only room for two.”

“The boy doesn’t take up space, he can sit on my wife’s lap-”

“Only two.”

I thought I couldn’t be any colder. The words froze my heart. We look at one another, I touch my husband’s arm. He catches my hand and grips it firmly. He looks at his old friend and slowly nods towards her boat. Chris sees the expression on his face, his smile more a grimace, and surges through the water towards the little craft.

It rocks wildly as he jumps the gap, spraying water over the rail as he climbs on board. I clutch my husband, my son crying with distress as a scream of fury rises from the woman in the boat.

Chris advances toward her. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I can hear him say.

I turn away, hiding my son from what is about to happen.

My husband takes a step back, his hand clutching for me. “Oh, God,” he says, no more than a whisper. I look back.

The woman is hugging Chris, the boat rocking with motion as they wrestle. As the lantern shakes I see that there is something odd about her. Her hair is black and wild and flows long over her squat form. Her mouth gapes wide, splitting her face apart as dozens of long translucent teeth spring outwards. Her yellow, bloodshot eyes are discs in the heap of her face, reflecting the dancing light. They roll up as she pulls him closer. Chris barely utters a single cry before she clamps her jaws around his head, her needle teeth sliding into his face.

He is trembling as her jaws open and close, consuming him inch, by inch, by inch.

I can’t watch, but I hear the crunching bites, the breathless swallowing. My husband throws up—the waves washing the mess away. He’s shaking, clutching me, holding the two of us.

The water is almost at my knees when the noises cease, each wave threatens to knock us over. I can’t feel my feet in the frigid water. The boat rocks as she sits back down.

“Only two,” her voice is liquid in the darkness.

“How can I trust you?” my husband asks her. “You’ve killed him. You’ve eaten him.”

“I give my word. Safe passage, but only two.”

“There has to be another way,” I shout at her.

She’s silent for another moment. We stumble in the surging water. “Then give me the child.”

The bile is catching at the back of my throat now. “Out of the question,” I hear myself reply.

“Then drown,” she turns and pulls the cord on the motor. Coughing, it starts to rumble.

My husband looks at me, he brushes the hair away from my sleeping boy’s face. “Go, Chris’s plan might still work, but I need to start making the raft while enough of the boat is above water,” he lies. And there’s nothing more to say.

The water is deep enough for the boat to come to us, and we struggle on board.

She guns the engine, and my husband vanishes into the darkness in an instant.

I hold my son close as the waters rush under us, trying to bring back the warmth he has lost, hide my eyes from the creature skulking at the tiller. We travel in silence until eventually, she slows, and I begin to hear waves breaking on the shore.

Steven Patchett is an Engineer, Father and Writer in the North East of England. His works have been published in Ellipsis Zine, Trembling with Fear and Doses of Dread. He can be found on Twitter, being encouraging @StevenPatchett7
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