Tethered | Verso.ink
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Short story

By Crystal Brinkerhoff

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The bodies wouldn’t sink.

His muscles ached and his back screamed at him. Dragging the corpses into the ocean had been much harder than he’d expected. Heavy with salt water, his crew uniform clung to his body and trapped in granules of sand that chafed his skin raw.

He thought he recognized a few of them from the cruise ship, but he couldn’t be sure. Their faces were swollen and pale. He recognized the old lady with the Bermuda shorts and red polo shirt. Each morning she’d ordered grapefruit and yogurt, and he’d delivered it.

An old man in a button-down shirt and khakis lay nearby in the sand. He was sure they were a couple, and he released them together. First her, then him, their feet leaving intertwining trails that were soon washed away by the tide.

In the few days he’d been here, the island had provided for his needs. It was small, but he’d found a freshwater stream that swelled with the afternoon rains. Lush vegetation had proved edible, and a purple fruit from one type of tree had tasted of sweet salvation.

But then the decay of human flesh set in. Between the stench and the insects they attracted, he couldn’t simply hide on his part of the island and wait for them to turn to bones.

He’d tried burying them. He’d managed to cover three corpses when night fell. By next morning, partially exposed bodies greeted him. It was as if the sand had found the decomposing bodies distasteful and spat them back out.

He’d tried burning them. Rubbing sticks together to create fire must be a trick of fiction. He hadn’t gotten so much as a wisp of smoke. He’d thrown his sticks to the ground and looked out over the endless ocean.

The answer had been surrounding him the entire time.

He couldn’t bring himself to touch their rotting flesh, gripping their clothing instead. He moved a body, and it groaned. Screaming, he was halfway down the beach before he realized it must be gases escaping from some crevice inside, and not the dead coming alive. Each successive body after that was like a terrifying game of jack-in-the-box.

The current only carried them so far, and then they seemed to halt, as if tethered to the island. There they stayed. Dozens of dark blemishes rising and falling among the white caps of the ocean waves.

At night, he pled for the blissful ignorance of sleep to wash over him. The ocean roared in his ears, and each time he closed his eyes waves swallowed him until he wasn’t sure which way was up. It was all so dark and murky, impossible to see until lightning struck. The water burst into a flash of radial light, clearly illuminating the survivors floating on the surface above, no longer moving.

He opened his eyes. They were out there. He couldn’t see them, but he could feel them.

In the dawn’s light, a piece of a lifeboat lay on the beach. A gift from the ocean. Or a taunt.

He glanced to the horizon for any sign of rescue. He only saw them.

He fastened the piece of lifeboat in between the branches of a tree and used it for shelter when rain came that afternoon. The rain let up, and the bugs came out. He had no defense and swatted frantically at the winged creatures biting his skin. The same creatures that devoured the dead.

The old lady in the red polo shirt washed up on shore while he was eating breakfast the next day. Part of her face was missing. He swiped at the sticky juice dripping down his chin. Waves lapped at her feet. He hurled the fruit into the sea and pushed her back out. When pieces of her flesh fell away in his hand he lost the contents of his stomach.

The second body appeared a few hours later. He pushed that one into the ocean. By dusk there were three more, the old lady among them. He pushed them all back.

What he wouldn’t give for a match or a lighter.

All night the ocean waves roared at him, and sleep would not claim him. He twitched at images of lightning and scratched at bugs tickling his skin.

When he emerged from his shelter in the morning, his shoulders slumped. Bodies stretched along the beach, far more than he’d carried out to sea.

The ocean spread in every direction. Another body washed up near his feet, a large crab feasting on the green flesh. He didn’t push this one back. If they wanted the island so badly, they could have it.

He wrestled his shelter out of the tree and hauled it to the water. Waves rose to meet his chest when he lay down on the makeshift raft. His lungs closed in panic. With a throaty gasp, he gulped precious oxygen. Sea brine burned his throat, but he kicked against the ocean.

His raft bottomed out on sand. That wasn’t right. He was on shore again. He must have gotten turned around.

He tried again, this time moving parallel to the shore, like he’d heard you should do with riptides. He didn’t know if that’s what this was. Didn’t riptides carry you out to sea? He nearly collided with another corpse and had to kick to veer around it.

He bottomed out on sand again. Panic set in. Abandoning the raft, he aimed for the open sea. He splashed through waves that threatened to drown him in his terror. He watched over his shoulder. No matter how hard he swam, that looming mass of land was there.

His lungs burned, and his muscles ached. His chest heaved with sobs. He had no strength left.

The water carried him back, each wave pushing him further and further onto the beach. He lay on the coarse sand.

One body among hundreds.

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