Choking on the Undertow
A honeymoon ends in a watery tragedy
The gentle crash of waves hit the ship, and Cecily Stoles stirs to semi-consciousness. The night wind, cool against her skin, washes her in an unexpected calm. Cecily stretches her arms and feels the warmth of Shane’s strong body against her own. She smiles but refuses to unglue her eyes. She wants to freeze this moment—her first waking moment as Mrs. Shane Stoles.
She forces herself to rise as her long, olive fingers punch something metallic behind her. The headboard of the bed? The cold is jarring and feels wrong somehow. Her index finger catches a jagged edge, and she cries out in pain as it gushes with a crimson stream. She turns her head away from her new husband, embarrassed and afraid to wake him. Shane fell in love with her tomboyish, goofy confidence, and this vulnerable crack makes her feel hysterical and silly.
A splash of saltwater sprays her with a menacing boom and brings total consciousness. Cecily struggles against a wave of confusion.
The reality of her surroundings comes back like a rush of blood to the head. Panic smacks her chest.
There is no bed, no adventures peeking around the corners of the future. No honeymoon amenities await. She's been trapped in the dilapidated, 10’ x 8’ lifeboat for 72 hours. The long-planned honeymoon hangs in bloodied tatters.
The sparkling white mini-yacht, Mrs. Good Luck, and its crew, along with the newlyweds’ dreams, are in a murky shipwrecked graveyard in the Caribbean Sea.
With shaking arms, Cecily slowly props herself up to the thin, splintered “seat” behind her, wincing as her finger continues to gush. She turns to face her beloved Shane only to find the decimated face of Captain Ortega—the leader of the small boat crew and the culprit behind the ship’s demise—peering at her.
Ortega’s chipped gold teeth, creepy in life and ominous in death, force his lips to a grotesque split and silently threaten to devour her. The right side of his face—entirely obliterated by a shotgun blast—crawls with millions of tiny brine and maggots. The constant pelting of the small ocean waves against the side of the peeling, sky blue lifeboat becomes menacing and drives into her brain like rusty spikes. Cecily freezes in Ortega’s spotlight gaze, searching in her sanded and parched vocals for a scream or a prayer to vanquish him.
Ortega begins to sing in an incomprehensible, guttural voice as inky blood clots spill from his tongue.
“Down where it's wetter; that’s where it’s better. Take it from me.”
She tears away from the Captain's horrible visage—a hallucination? A ghost? —Cecily spots Shane curled up on the lifeboat’s rusty edge. His body glows in the cloudy, moonless night, and his head hangs askew off the side of the long wooden seat.
She tries to call to him, to go to him. But she remembers that the man she loves, the man she has just married, is dead. Her half-delirious terror finds its exit and rises like a siren to the endless sea and deaf ears of its inhabitants. Cecily closes her eyes to reality as tearless sobs rack her dehydrated body.
When Cecily again opens her sun-scorched eyes, she’s unsure of the passage of time. Has an hour passed? A day? Several? She tries to laugh, but the vocal strain sends daggers down her throat.
On the first night, in desperation, she ignited the two lifeboat flares. Shane’s stomach looked like raw meat, but Cecily was sure help would come. The couple’s journey to marriage led them down a brambled and steep path and had to end on a mountaintop. After all they’d endured—her bout with breast cancer, the death of Shane’s parents, the two-year fissure in their relationship—surely blessings would reign down on the rest of their days. Right?
Her first year with Shane obliterated the steel-enforced walls of Cecily's heart. Shane hated cheapening I love you by using it constantly and would whisper, as you wish instead. She melted with every utterance. But Shane, “all in” until the love became a reality, panicked and ran away. Yet Cecily knew. She knew after all of these years; only Shane held her heart. It took three years of silence and many short relationships before he returned. But he did, as she knew he would. Shane’s proposal came only six months into their reunion.
Cecily can’t bring herself to allow the unrelenting sea to swallow Shane’s lifeless body. She crawls over and snuggles up to his chest—disregarding the flies feasting on his decay.
“As you wish,” she murmurs. Shane's deep blue lips seem to open in return. She swears he responds.
Adrift at Sea, Day 6.
“Shane, we’re going to be okay,” Cecily mutters as the blazing sun beats down her door of sleep. Shane’s stomach has bloated, and his stench is unbearable. She pushes herself off of him. Her finger, dry and scabbed over, swelled overnight. Forgetting her wound, she runs it over her lips, crying out in pain as she awakes. Days of unrelenting sun and saltwater have rendered her lips cracked with deep chasms.
On Day 4, in a fit of grief, she'd gulped all of the bottled water, and now, Cecily feels her stretched and swollen skin breaking.
She adjusts to the blinding glare of daylight and looks toward the endless horizon. No rescue helicopters above, and no ships—rescue or otherwise—in sight. Her head pounds, but she musters the strength to move back toward Shane's body. Cecily concentrates on the boat's bottom, fearing entanglement in the ropes and emergency bags at her knees. The short distance between her and Shane feels like a football field. She army-crawls a mere foot and rests again.
“Mrs.! Get below! NOW.” The voice of the ship’s deceased first mate, JoJo, bellows.
Shane’s feet are within reaching distance, but Cecily slowly raises her head at the first mate's voice. Jojo stands above her, bent at the waist peering in admonition. His intestines cascade from a hole in his stomach, and Cecily emits a terrified and weak giggle as they sully his uniform.
You’re messing up your uniform, JoJo.
He grabs her arms and screams:
You’re never getting out of here!
“No! Please, leave us alone,” Cecily manages before falling on her back.
She stretches her arm to Shane and promptly passes out again.
Shane and Cecily decided to forego a large wedding to celebrate an extravagant honeymoon. They settled on a week sailing the Caribbean from the coast of Tortuga (her idea), followed by a week at a fly fishing camp in Alaska (his).
“Seriously,” Shane mocked when Tortuga came up, “How in the world did you decide on Tortuga?”
She playfully punched at his stomach. “I just like the sound of it. Tor-too-gah. It reminds me of car-a-mel—it drips off my tongue. And 'off-the-beaten-path', remember?"
Following a first married night drinking copious amounts of cheap rum on the island, the couple boarded Mrs. Goodluck. Along with a crew of five, they embarked on the journey. Cecily could feel the crew’s eyes bore under her skin—she felt like they were staring into her. There was something sinister lurking behind their gleaming white grins. She whispered her distrust to Shane.
“They just don’t seem right. They’re too happy. I feel like they’re hovering over us.”
Shane raised his eyebrow and cocked his smile. “Too many true crime podcasts, babe. Those shows are infecting your brain. Besides, isn’t the husband always the ‘bad guy’?”
“I know, I sound paranoid. But they give me the willies.”
He draped an arm around her shoulder and eased her stress. “Ah! The willies! We should get off this ship right now.”
He kissed her forehead. “They creep me out a bit too, Cess, but that’s just part of the adventure, I think.”
In life, Captain Ortega was a portly and squishy little man. He wore an ambiguously decorated uniform and beamed an unpleasant grin. His crew held identical forced smiles and greeted the Stoles with excessive friendliness. They donned pressed uniforms of glaring white—as if bleached to hide some darker past, and they refused to call Shane and Cecily by their first names.
The first mate, JoJo, guided the tour of the ship and placed their luggage in the main cabin. The chef, "Flipper," showed them to a table on the deck. When Shane asked about his moniker, Flipper grotesquely mimicked a fish and said, “I swim like the dolphin!”
Cecily’s fears faded as the amiable Flipper presented a feast of mango, crab, artisanal cheeses, and a rich, buttered bread that Shane swore he’d kill for to eat every day. Meanwhile, a few feet away, the crew stood lingering conspiratorially, speaking in hushed tones. As the meal ended and day melted into a crimson-toned sunset, another small boat approached.
Shane realized the ship's trajectory first. He grabbed Cecily's arm and whispered an urgent, "We need to get out of here," into her ear.
Without slowing, the smaller vessel rammed into the side of Mrs. GL. Jojo screamed to the Stoles to get below deck and swiftly persuaded them. Loud, muffled voices and new, thundering footsteps reverberated from above.
“Cess, I need you not to panic. We need to get to the lifeboat. Now.”
Cecily swallowed her unwanted tears and followed Shane’s lead. As they crept up the short ladder leading to the deck, JoJo peeked his smooth, ebony face into the opening. The smile had evaporated.
“Mrs.! Get back below! Now!”
More muffled, angry voices spilled from the deck, and JoJo ran after spitting another warning.
Once on deck, Shane and Cecily hid behind a huge steel barrel above the lifeboats. They could make out the silhouettes of three large men, standing in a circle around the kneeling crew.
“Where’s our stash, Ortega?” One of the men barked.
"I have two rich Americans on board." Ortega managed. "Can we trade them and call it even? A lucrative trade, I think."
One of the men whacked Ortega in the nape of his neck, and he crumpled to the deck.
With ninja-like stealth, the newlyweds found the lifeboat and lowered it undetected into the abyss below. They ascertained the Captain and his crew had conned the other men out of an ample drug supply, and this visit was retribution.
They boarded the lifeboat in silence and escaped in the inky black night. Shane quietly urged Cecily to help him paddle away. Cloaked in the thick fog of darkness, they stopped to watch the horrific scene unfurling aboard the Mrs. Goodluck.
A cacophony of shotgun blasts permeated the quiet air, their sparks visible from the lifeboat. The drug dealers’ boat sped off into the night as a spectacular ball of fire engulfed Mrs. Good Luck.
Shane stuffed his panic and turned to his wife. “Guess there’s been a change of plans.”
He swiftly moved to the prominent seat at the bow of the lifeboat. He opened its hidden compartment to pull out a "bug-out bag" full of three flares, a first-aid kit, two liters of fresh water, a blanket, and a box of energy bars—not enough to sustain them for more than a couple of days. The lifeboat listed with the current and the Stoles breathed in the enormity of their situation.
Cecily grabbed the blanket and smoothed it out over the bench. "Well, it could be worse, I guess," she said. "We could’ve gone to Key West with all the Spring Breakers."
Her tension-diffusion attempt faltered, and she expected chiding from Shane. But he remained silent behind her.
She turned to see him struggle to stand upright. Sweat glistened on his forehead, and his once golden skin turned pale and vampiric.
“Ow,” Shane exclaimed. He grabbed at his abdomen. He laughed in sputters.
“Did I get shot?” he asked. His hand trembled as he pulled it away from his dark tee shirt. Blood covered his fingers, and he dropped to his knees.
Cecily screamed and ran to him. She tried to comfort her husband, but she couldn’t see through her tears.
"Shane. Shane. Shane," she chanted. "It's gonna be okay, babe. I promise you; you're gonna be okay."
Shane half-smiled, but when he tried to respond, black blood poured from his mouth. And just like that, the love of Cecily’s life was gone.
Sleep escaped her until an eventual resignation led to slumber. When daybreak arrived, Cecily was smacked by her dire situation. She spotted Shane lying awkwardly at the other end of the boat. His contorted neck jutted out from his body, a small pool of dark blood collected beneath his head.
Cold emptiness oozed from her husband.
Day 7, Adrift at Sea.
With all she can muster, Cecily screams to the heavens.
“Please, let me die. Please just kill me now.”
A seagull lands by her head and stares. Cecily cries, but no tears come. The puzzled bird cocks his head toward her before flying away. A dark cloud moves in front of the relenting sun, and drops of relief begin to fall.
Freshwater. Cecily lies with her head on her dead husband’s lap, facing the sky. She bitterly laughs as she opens her mouth and drinks in the cool moisture for what feels like hours. She closes her eyes and lets the rain soak up her despair.
The water below her stirs. A malevolent force urges Cecily to dive in. And for a moment, she is tempted. She can hear the crew shouting from the ocean’s depths, beckoning her to give up, but a surge of resilience courses through her bones.
She wraps her arms around Shane and she becomes a puzzle piece to snuggle with his body. Rancid decay permeates the air, but she catches a whiff of his familiar, lovable scent on his well-worn sweatshirt. Cecily holds tighter to the body, trying to force her love to give him life, and then she says goodbye. She presses Shane’s eyelids shut, pushes him off the lifeboat, and watches his body sink into the abyss.
She is alone.
A foghorn sounds in the distance, shrieking as it grows closer. A hallucination? Cecily no longer cares. She wants to drown herself in her grief. She hears a man on a megaphone announcing her rescue, but she doesn’t move. She lets exhaustion overtake her.
Frozen in place, she thinks of Shane. She doesn’t want to leave him. Cecily becomes aware of a sudden, insistent, gentle tug on her shoulder.
"She's alive," a booming voice utters. "But we need to get her to Medical. ASAP."
Meaty hands lift her and sling her body over a broad shoulder.
Cecily steels herself, and peers down at the disappearing waves. She glimpses Shane's face, pleading for her return. The distorted Captain and first mate float next to him, their bloated fingers wiggling.
“Come with us,” they hiss. “Down where it’s wetter; that’s where it’s better.”
“Babe. Don’t leave me,” Shane’s ghost warbles.
But Cecily buries her head into the shoulder of the rescuer.
The indigo of evening sets as she awakes in a sterile hospital ward. A heavy blanket of silence covers her. She lays, hooked up to myriad IVs. Cecily no longer feels the steady swoosh of the sea and breathes a sigh of relief. She's cemented to unmovable ground.
A sudden urge overtakes her, and she creeps to her feet, wheeling the IVs with her to the bathroom. Cecily catches a glimpse of her pugilist looks in the mirror. One eye remains swollen shut, and the other is covered in a rainbow of bruises. She closes her eyes and grasps the bathroom sink to steady herself: her wounded finger throbs, and the room spins.
The room fills with water. Cecily tries to scream, but her mouth fills with a salty cascade of ripples.
She opens her eyes and sees Shane’s corpse floating behind her. Shane smacks into her and opens sightless eyes.
“Don’t our vows mean anything to you?” he asks. “Forever! Forever!” Shane shouts in laughter as he drifts past her.
A familiar voice warbles, “Down where it’s wetter, that’s where it’s better,” and Cecily yelps. A knock at the door evaporates the water. Scents of bleach and gauze flood her olfactory.
She is safe. She stands on dry land.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” A nurse’s worried muffle asks.
“I’m fine,” she says. “I’m fine.” She reaches for the doorknob, and it sticks. Her hand is soaking wet.
Cecily shrieks and tells herself she's hallucinating. But when she opens her eyes, she stares at a foamy puddle growing around her feet.
"Ma'am! Open the door!" The nurse's voice pleads. Cecily reaches again for the knob, and glances back at the dark water, rushing into the bathroom.
"Please, no," she whispers.
She shrinks against the door in defeat and chokes as the water rises above her head. Shane appears before her again and takes her hand. He smiles as he points to her wedding ring. Cecily lets her husband guide her.
"Down where it's wetter; that's where it's better," she thinks.